Ellen Cronan Rose (review date February 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2087

SOURCE: Rose, Ellen Cronan. “Discourse and Ideology.” Women's Review of Books 3, no. 5 (February 1986): 17-18.

[In the following review, Rose evaluates the themes of Sexual/Textual Politics in the context of comparison to Gayle Greene's Making a Difference.]

It hasn't been much more than a decade since the first, ground-breaking anthologies of feminist literary criticism appeared, bravely claiming The Authority of Experience, heralding nothing short of a revolution in pedagogy, publishing and canon (re)formation. Yet three years ago as I was putting together a reading list for a course in Feminist Literary Theory, I thought I could glimpse outlines of an emerging “history,” as “Images of Women” produced “Resisting Readers” who called for a “Literature of Their Own” until reminded of Archimedes. And then New French Feminisms changed the language and the name of the game. Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics is the book I might have wished to write, had some grant-giving fairy godmother provided me an opportunity to develop my casual observation into an analytic critique of that reading list.

Moi's book begins with Virginia Woolf. Where else? As she says, our goal as feminists must be a critical theory that does “both justice and homage to its great mother and sister.” Moi's book also begins with Elaine Showalter, who accuses Woolf of a “flight” from her gendered identity “into androgyny” and ends with Julia Kristeva, whose “deconstruction of the opposition between masculinity and femininity” provides a perspective from which to see that Woolf's “crucial concept of androgyny” recognizes the “falsifying metaphysical nature” of fixed gender identities.

Showalter slates Woolf for embracing androgyny because she sees it (accurately, Moi would cede) as a radical undermining of “the notion of the unitary self” which is crucial to the liberal humanist feminism Anglo-American feminists espouse. What Showalter and the Anglo-Americans fail to appreciate, Moi says, is that humanism is part and parcel of patriarchal ideology. Its “integrated self” (commonly called “Man,” Moi reminds us) is, according to Derrida, Irigaray and Cixous, “a phallic self … sole author of history and of the literary text.” Liberal humanist feminism—which posits both the unitary self and the possibility of a text that transparently represents this self—is thus ironically and embarrassingly in collusion with phallocentric ideology. (Moi distinguishes between Anglo-American and French feminists not geographically but ideologically: the American Jane Gallop is thus “French” and exempted from Moi's critique.)

French theorists, Kristeva in particular, are Virginia Woolf's true heirs, Moi maintains, because like her they reject the “metaphysical essentialism underlying patriarchal ideology, which hails God, the Father or the phallus as its transcendental signified [sic].” A combination of Derridean deconstruction and Kristevan semiotics “would seem” then “to hold considerable promise for future feminist readings of Woolf” and—if adequate readings of Woolf are taken as the litmus test of feminist theory—would therefore be the epistemology of choice for feminist criticism. But, Moi says, there are serious limitations to this poststructuralist theoretical orientation. Like psychoanalysis, which of course it has appropriated to its own ends, it is insufficiently sensitive to the historical matrix in which language and the subject are embedded. The project of feminist theory must, then, be the integration of deconstruction's insight—that the self is constructed in and by language—with a “larger” feminist theory of ideology that takes race, class and history into account.

I have lingered over Moi's introductory chapter because it elegantly encapsulates the larger enterprise of her book: “to discuss the methods, principles and politics at work within feminist critical practice” from an explicitly political vantage point. Yet at the same time that Moi's survey of “the most representative figures”...

(This entire section contains 2087 words.)

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of Anglo-American and French critical theory is biased towards continental theorists, it is disarmingly self-reflexive. Moi begins with Showalter and ends with Kristeva because she finds French deconstruction more congenial than Anglo-American liberal humanism. But as she has the honesty to fault Kristeva for political naiveté, so she also recognizes that her own book could be “indicted” because “its basic structure does not represent a more radical [Marxist-feminist] challenge to the current dominance of the Anglo-American and the French critical perspectives.”

In fact, I think she is unduly apprehensive on this score. The basic structure of her book demonstrates precisely the kind of deconstruction practiced by such British Marxist-feminists as Penny Boumelha, Cora Kaplan and Michèle Barrett. Moi's reading of representative Anglo-American and French feminist theorists uncovers the “gaps,” “absences” and fissures in their texts through which ideology can be glimpsed. She turns this deconstructionist screw on Kate Millett, Mary Ellmann (who fares better than the other Anglo-Americans because of her “deconstructive, decentering” irony), “Images of Women” criticism, Ellen Moers, Showalter, Gilbert and Gubar, Annette Kolodny and Myra Jehlen. (She excludes black and lesbian contributions to American feminist criticism because “so far, lesbian and/or black feminist criticism have presented exactly the same methodological and theoretical problems as the rest of Anglo-American feminist criticism.”)

Thus Kate Millett's rejection of Freud, in particular her resistance to the notion of an unconscious, reveals to Moi her investment in the idea of a conscious male conspiracy against women who, once made conscious of it by Millett, can rise up and declare themselves free. When Gilbert and Gubar maintain on the one hand that the traditional view of the relationship between author and text is hierarchical, authoritarian and paternal and insist on the other on the absolute subjective authority of the female writer, their inconsistency discloses their adherence to a critical practice “still laboring under the traditional patriarchal aesthetic values of New Criticism.” And, to give one example from the French theorists Moi prefers (no one is safe from the deconstructionist) Hélène Cixous's slide into biologism in her distinction between the “gift” and the “proper” not only contradicts her Derridean notion of différance but reveals that her “vision of women's writing” is “steeped in the very metaphysics of presence she claims she is out to unmask.”

Neither a purely objective documentary nor a narrowly sectarian polemic, Sexual/Textual Politics commands our respect, whether or not we agree with Moi's theoretical preferences, because of its unflinching integrity. Intended as an “introduction to feminist literary theory,” this book exemplifies feminist theory-making at its rigorous best.

Although with two exceptions the pieces collected in Making a Difference are review-essays, Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn's book does more than provide surveys of recent scholarship in linguistic, French post-structuralist, psychoanalytic, socialist, lesbian and black feminist criticism. The editors' own impressive contribution to the book establishes the context within which we are meant to read the rest of the essays, demonstrating the multiple perspectives feminist scholarship brings to our understanding of “the social construction of woman.”

Greene and Kahn's “Feminist Scholarship and the Social Construction of Woman” is arguably more interdisciplinary than the collection of literary-critical essays it prefaces. Literature, they assert, is only one of several discursive practices “whose conventions encode social conventions and are ideologically complicit.” And “a feminist interpretation of literature involves decoding many of the same systems of signification with which social sciences,” chiefly anthropology and history, “are concerned.” Elegantly employing a polysemous text other feminist critics (notably Susan Gubar and Christine Froula) have invoked—Isak Dinesen's “The Blank Page”—Greene and Kahn consider the questions these disciplines, as practiced by feminists, ask in chorus: how did patriarchal power arise? what makes it persist? what is the relation between canonical history and its subversive subtext, women's history? what is the ideological status of narrative?

Greene and Kahn advocate and practice “an epistemologically radical feminist criticism” similar to Moi's, combining as it does deconstructive and materialist approaches to understand the “collusion” between discourse and ideology. The best pieces in the collection follow their example.

Given that each contributor seems to have been assigned a piece of the total picture, it is remarkable that so many manage to suggest the whole while developing their particular perspective. Nelly Furman and Cora Kaplan, for example, appear to be approaching the collusion between discourse and ideology from alien perspectives: Furman begins with language, Kaplan with class. Yet Furman's ultimate concern is with “the constitution of the social subject” in and by language, and Kaplan acknowledges that “class and race ideologies” are “steeped in and spoken through the language of sexual differentiation.” Both Furman and Kaplan question the assumption made by liberal feminist criticism—represented in Making a Difference by Sydney Janet Kaplan's survey of Anglo-American critics from Ellmann to Showalter, Kolodny and Gilbert and Gubar—that there exists a unified subject whose experience is reflected in literary representation. Rather, they argue, the subject is constructed in and by the “languages” of race, class and gender. The feminist critic's task, as Greene and Kahn insist in their introduction, is “to deconstruct [both] the social construction of gender and the cultural paradigms that support it.”

Furman's “The Politics of Language,” Kaplan's essay on “Subjectivity, Class and Sexuality in Feminist Criticism,” Ann Rosalind Jones on “French Theories of the Feminine” and Bonnie Zimmerman's “Overview of Lesbian Feminist Criticism” (reprinted from Feminist Studies) not only survey existing scholarship but also evaluate its epistemological sophistication. Sydney Janet Kaplan's survey of feminist critical practitioners and Judith Kegan Gardiner's review of feminist adaptations of a variety of psychological theories are less satisfying because less self-reflexive. Neither Kaplan nor Gardiner devotes much attention to post-structuralist, neo-Lacanian French theory, which informs the other essays in Making a Difference and contributes to the methodological posture of the book as a whole.

Two fine essays avoid the survey approach: Susan Willis “develop[s] a theoretical perspective” for reading black women writers and Adrienne Munich gives a virtuoso demonstration of how a feminist critic can “re-vise” the patriarchal canon to uncover a “female presence shin[ing] through the text's negation of it.” Although both Willis and Munich could have surveyed the critical tradition each represents (there is a growing corpus of both black feminist criticism and revisionary reappropriations of male-authored texts), I for one am glad they decided instead to demonstrate it. Willis argues persuasively for a reading of black women's writing that sees its central concerns—community, journey and the reclamation of sensuality—as more than thematic motifs or structuring devices. Rather, they constitute a “mode of discourse” which enables the writer to bring a “critical perspective” to bear on her personal and cultural history and on “the forms of oppression generated by capitalism.” In Willis's essay, as elsewhere in Making a Difference, the languages of race, class and gender interact in a sophisticated critical discourse. It is a powerful challenge to Moi's claim that black feminist criticism has not made a significant contribution to feminist theory.

Sula is a text that figures prominently not only in Susan Willis's essay but in Adrienne Munich's as well; there it serves to illustrate a strategy feminists might adopt, of “reading male-authored texts from the margins.” Another favorite text for feminists, The Yellow Wallpaper, provides Munich with “a striking metaphor for the feminist critic who is locked in a patriarchal world.” Like the narrator in that story, Munich discovers that “in the background of patriarchal texts are women trying to escape into readability.” Her readings of Genesis 2 and an episode from Don Quixote reveal a fear of female authority which may account for the erasure of the female voice in these and other male-authored texts. “The absence of Eve,” she proposes, may in fact merely screen “women's significant role” in the production of texts and of culture.

That feminist literary theory has a history was evident several years ago; these two critical surveys of that history not only put it in perspective but issue a challenge to aspiring theorists. Implicit in Greene and Kahn's book, explicit in Moi's, is a rigorous epistemological yardstick for judging the adequacy and comprehensiveness of any feminist approach to theory-making. Cora Kaplan, in her contribution to Making a Difference, says that “semiotic or psychoanalytic perspectives have yet to be integrated with social, economic and political analysis” and although Toril Moi persuasively argues that either of these approaches is preferable to “the homogenizing author-centered readings of Anglo-American critics,” she too calls for their combination. Both she and Nelly Furman conclude by invoking Jacques Derrida, who once imagined a discourse “beyond the binary difference that governs the decorum of all codes, beyond the opposition feminine/masculine.” That discourse might, Furman believes, “explode the fabric of our society which we now conceive within the terms of the restricted economy of [patriarchal] exchange.” That discourse might also enable us to read Virginia Woolf.

Donna Landry (essay date winter 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5208

SOURCE: Landry, Donna. “The Word According to Moi: Politics and Feminist Literary Theory.Criticism 29, no. 1 (winter 1987): 119-32.

[In the following essay, Landry addresses the political implications of Sexual/Textual Politics in the context of contemporary feminist theory.]

“In our country culture has become so complex, this complexity is reflected in our literature. It takes a certain level of education to understand our novelists. The ordinary man cannot understand them. …”

… And she reeled off a list of authors, smiling smugly. It never occurred to her that those authors had ceased to be of any value whatsoever to their society—or was it really true that an extreme height of culture and the incomprehensible went hand in hand?

Bessie Head, A Question of Power1

It is hardly a startling revelation that feminist theorists have tended to write essays rather than books. Indeed, something of a feminist orthodoxy has developed from this preference for the open arena, in which the dialogue is never forced into anything but a provisional closure, unlike the monumental silences that mark the endings and shuttings of books. Besides, essays are modest and bespeak collectivity and community: published articles are said to have a half-life of six months, and they take their place next to other articles in collections where they attain a certain collaborative aura even if they are not officially labelled as the products of collective labor. The appearance of the first booklength surveys of the field thus cannot fail to strike problematical as well as possibly progressive notes: disciplinary expansion and recognition (cheers!), creeping reification and theoretical dogmatism (boos!). The convenience of having a single text to recommend to students and other interested parties, or to order for a course in which feminist theory is to be represented, does not necessarily outweigh the political and theoretical consequences of this discursive shift within feminism that locates it ever more securely within the capitalist circuitry of book publishing.

The immediacy of this shift is apparent from the first footnote of Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory,2 Moi finds herself claiming that in spite of the appearance of K. K. Ruthven's Feminist Literary Studies in 1984,3 her book remains as its first sentence announces, “the first full introduction to this field … to be published in English.”4 She insists that she does not really need to change her introductory sentence, written “some months” before Ruthven's book was published, not least because his book is more concerned with practical or applied feminist criticism than hers is, and because his is too English-department oriented, thus ignoring French feminist theory. Yet neither of these assessments is strictly accurate, thus arousing, however reluctantly, the suspicion that Moi has not read Ruthven carefully enough. And both of these assessments can be seen to redound upon her own work in peculiar ways.

But Moi's major objection to Ruthven's study is an important one, characteristic of her book's interventionist brilliance. Moi's consistently lucid analysis of the political implications of a number of (it must be said: largely First Worldist, white, academic and class-privileged) feminist theoretical positions in vogue today is her book's chief strength. Her objection to Ruthven is not, as he seems to fear, that he is a man intervening in feminist debates, but that he is a man who perhaps overestimates the advisibility of or necessity of men in this historical moment to assume a vanguardist or “leading role” in feminist debates, especially if, like Ruthven, they have a tendency to fall back on a “safe” academicism just at the point when a more radical theoretical position would demand a critique of the institutional bases of the bastion of literary criticism itself. Ruthven writes, disappointingly, but not perhaps surprisingly (given his rather snide anti-marxism and verging-on-the-paranoid polemic against a “feminist separatism” that seems to be lurking everywhere and is intransigent when confronted with liberal male offers of a helpful “moderation”) that, “whatever else feminism might be, and whatever ends it might think of itself as serving, by the time it enters literary studies as critical discourse it is just one more way of talking about books.”5 One can only insist, and ideology, and the politics of cultural production of value, and so politics will never be entirely absent, however harmless “purely academic” feminist-inspired discussions of books may sometimes seem. Moi is right to object to this depoliticizing tendency of Ruthven's scholarly, witty, and in other ways extremely useful book.

Procedurally speaking, Moi's approach to the texts of feminist theory she has chosen is admirable. She situates herself as a culturally-specific subject, acknowledging both her marginality as a Norwegian who teaches French at Oxford and her imperial (etho)centrism as a “white European trained within the mainstream of Western thought” (p. xiv). Her method of exposition consists of a recapitulation of the argument under discussion followed by a more or less strident critique of its theoretical limitations, ideological blind-spots, and political dangers. This is a brave book: it tackles without apology (thus breaching some feminists' assumptions about sisterly solidarity) several of our most influential Anglophone theorists. And while Moi's study presents the post-structuralist, post-deconstructivist theories of the “French feminists” Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva on the whole more sympathetically, it does not flinch from engaging in the most thorough and direct exposure of some of the problems such work presents for a feminist critical practice or a feminist politics.

The crux of Moi's argument as it emerges in her readings of such “classic” texts of feminism as Mary Ellmann's Thinking about Women (1968), Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (1969), Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own (1977), Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), and Myra Jehlen's “Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism” (1981),6 is that mainstream Anglo-American feminist criticism suffers from an insufficiently critical dependence upon a bourgeois, humanist, hence patriarchal aesthetics:

What feminists … fail to grasp is that the traditional humanism they represent is in effect part of patriarchal ideology. As its centre is the seamlessly unified self—either individual or collective—which is commonly called ‘Man.’ As Luce Irigaray or Hélène Cixous would argue, this integrated self is in fact a phallic self, constructed on the model of the self-contained, powerful phallus. Gloriously autonomous, it banishes from itself all conflict, contradiction and ambiguity. In this humanist ideology the self is the sole author of history and of the literary text: the humanist creator is potent, phallic and male—God in relation to his world; the author in relation to his text. History or the text become nothing but the ‘expression’ of this unique individual: all art becomes autobiography. …

(p. 8)

In these terms it becomes possible to critique feminist texts as diverse as those listed above in relation to a certain bourgeois humanist thematics of authenticity, self-identity, and emotion that reveals itself as ideology. That the theoretical underpinning of such influential works as Showalter's and Gilbert and Gubar's can justly be classified as liberal humanist will not be news to many. And there are those who might wish to object to this definition of the bourgeois self as “seamlessly unified” rather than as (equally reified) “self-divided.” But Moi's characterization of liberal feminist theory as it reproduces itself in textual interpretation reveals certain limiting, even reactionary, assumptions about subjectivity that many feminists whose practical politics are far more radical than Showalter's or Gilbert and Gubar's help perpetuate.

The veneration accorded female anger, for example, by Millett, Showalter, and Gilbert and Gubar, as the determinant key to unlocking women's experience of the real, becomes recognizable through Moi's analysis as a naively mimetic, psychologistic, and ethnocentric prejudice, interpretatively reductive as well as politically unsound in its preservation of a tendency toward violence. Autobiography, too, so often regarded as a sanctified means of politicizing the personal in feminist theory and practice, while all the while satisfying that bourgeois hunger for subjectivity-confirming plaisir, becomes in Moi's analysis not ideologically suspect as a genre, but inappropriate as an interpretative expectation when (mis)applied to other kinds of texts. Gilbert and Gubar in particular are taken to task, not for the more familiar accusation of relying too heavily on the oedipal dynamics of Harold Bloom's influence theory—a reliance that is problematical for feminism—but for reading all women's texts as fables of rebellious artistic struggle and development, an equally post-Romantic adherence to traditional literary-critical codes:

Their critical approach postulates a real woman hidden behind the patriarchal textual facade, and the feminist critic's task is to uncover her truth. … This position, which in less sophisticated guises is perhaps the most recurrent theme of Anglo-American feminist criticism, manages to transform all texts written by women into feminist texts, because they may always and without exception be held to embody somehow and somewhere the author's ‘female rage’ against patriarchal oppression.

(pp. 61-62)

If the “autobiographical tendency” within feminism does little more than perpetuate the bourgeois humanist illusion of a self that can be repeatedly secured through acts of writing as “self-expression” and acts of reading as self-constitution-in-consumption, then that notion requires a major overhaul. Otherwise feminist criticism will fail to be socially transformative in any radical way, or fail to offer us any new forms of subjectivity, only the repackaged replication of liberal humanism that radical or socialist feminisms theoretically strive to reject.

The substantive challenge of Moi's argument lies in her contention that Western feminist aesthetics lags behind feminist politics on the road of revolutionary feminist praxis. All too often in the West, when we read a literary text, we are apt to fall back on a naive mimeticism, in which authorial and characterological struggles stand in for our own. This naive relation to questions of signification is often accompanied by a residual bias toward realism and against modernism or avant-garde experimentalism. The feminist desire for an historicist reconstruction of the suppressed texts of women's experience does not obviate the need to develop new, politically useful strategies for reading those texts. To fail to do so would be to fall prey to bourgeois empiricism as well as humanism. And post-structuralist ideas, Moi argues, especially the theories of subjectivity and textuality put forward by Lacan, Derrida, Barthes, and Kristeva, are crucial to the development of a theoretically sophisticated, politically progressive feminist criticism.

According to Moi, bourgeois notions of the unitary self reproduce themselves in unitary readings of texts, preferably realist texts (as Moi demonstrates, a bias shared by Lukácsian as well as bourgeois criticism). Many feminist critics thus find the modernist textuality of a writer like Virginia Woolf surprisingly troubling and difficult of access—for Moi, a signal that feminist criticism needs precisely a theory of textuality that can accommodate such “pioneering modes” of textual—and subject(ive)—production:

The humanist desire for a unity of vision or thought (or as [Marcia] Holly puts it, for a ‘noncontradictory perception of the world’) is, in effect, a demand for a sharply reductive reading of literature—a reading that, not least in the case of an experimental writer like Woolf, can have little hope of grasping the central problems posed by pioneering modes of textual production. A ‘noncontradictory perception of the world’, for Lukács's Marxist opponent Bertolt Brecht, is precisely a reactionary one.

(pp. 10-11)

The values espoused here can be understood as those of marxian ideology critique: contradiction rather than monism or consensus; progressivism and variously experimental forms of cultural production with their estranging or alienating effects rather than “nostalgic” movements of return to a pre-existing and repressively “unified” order. Throughout Moi's book, left-leaning post-structuralist textual theory and innovative textual production collude to help make thinkable a new social order less bourgeoisified and patriarchal than our own. But as my epigraph from the South African writer Bessie Head's novel suggests, this very reliance on theoretical and literary vanguardism is itself a “high cultural” and Eurocentric notion which assumes that the complex, the difficult, and the elusively incoherent are “truer” or more culturally “progressive” than more familiar literary forms accessible to those outside the vanguard.

The character who smugly reels off a list of authors famous for being almost impossible to understand is Camilla, a Danish agricultural expert working in Botswana, whose method of teaching stands in stark contrast to the sympathetically rational, methodical explanations of other knowledgeable characters in the novel. The interior reflection on the political uselessness of these elite Danish writers is Elizabeth's; she is a “coloured” South African exile who resents Camilla's assertions of cultural superiority: “She flung information at her in such a way as to make it totally incomprehensible and meaningless, subtly demonstrating that to reach her level of education Elizabeth had to be able to grasp the incoherent.”7 The irony lies in Head's own textual production, which is far from “simple” in its exploration of socially produced mental breakdown, its mingling of African and Western mythemes, its generic disruptions and characterological discontinuities, and its far from naively utopian political vision. Yet Head's novel is grounded in certain realist assumptions about narrative and can be understood by the post-colonial Anglophone “ordinary man” (though many American undergraduates find it unsettling). The difference between Head's “pioneering mode of textual production” and Moi's examples is that Head's is not classically “modernist” in the high European sense; indeed it explicitly questions the depoliticizing elitism of modernism's insularly formalist concerns, while producing new post-colonialist modes of textual and subjective confrontation. The legacy of modernism is surely not, politically or aesthetically, an unmixed one. And while the Lukács-Brecht debate provides a useful touchstone for a critique of humanist aesthetics, the terms of that debate are too narrow to supply us with contemporary feminist answers to the problem of reading the politics of literary forms against masculinist traditions and in less ethnocentric ways. The limitation of Moi's critique of feminism's residual humanist aesthetics is its substitution of a modernist polemic for a more heterogeneous encounter with textual and theoretical developments outside the mainstreams of Europe and North America.

If Moi has powerfully foregounded the need for new aesthetic criteria in the struggle to change subjectivity, she has also supplied us with the best available introduction to French feminist theory in English. Much of the fuss and bother over the high theoreticism of “new French” feminisms on this side of the Atlantic has by now died away, and so it is no longer accurate to claim, as Moi does, that “Anglo-American feminist critics have been mostly indifferent or even hostile towards literary theory, which they have often regarded as a hopelessly abstract ‘male’ activity” (p. 70). Many are by now aware of the work of Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva, the three theorists Moi analyzes in some detail. Previous discussions widely available in America, whether in the influential anthology New French Feminisms or such essays as Ann Rosalind Jones's “Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of l'écriture féminine,8 have tended to treat these writers as participants in a discourse of French feminist theory in such a way that their ideas, critical positions, and politics seem so intellectually cross-hatched as to be almost interchangeable. One might wish to object to Moi's author-centered approach to the work of Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva on other, post-structuralist grounds. But her examination of their theoretical positions here as distinguishable in terms of certain aims and tendencies is useful; she characterizes each in relation to essentialist or biologistic assumptions, the politico-aesthetic project of women writing/writing about women, and feminist political praxis.

Briefly: Cixous's notion of écriture féminine, despite its residual biologism and essentialist implications with regard to gender, is recuperated as utopian in the liberationary sense; Irigaray's groundbreaking critique of patriarchal discourse is valued over her (residually essentialist) attempts to write “femininity” and her work as a whole is criticized as lacking in historical specificity and any coherent materialist analysis of power. Kristeva emerges as the nearly impeccable heroine of this text:

If, as I have previously argued, all efforts towards a definition of ‘woman’ are destined to be essentialist, it looks as if feminist theory might thrive better if it abandoned the minefield of femininity and femaleness for a while and approached the questions of oppression and emancipation from a different direction. This, to a great extent, is what Julia Kristeva has tried to do. But it is also paradoxically one of the reasons why Kristeva, as opposed to Cixous and Irigaray, cannot strictly speaking be considered a purely feminist theorist.

(pp. 148-49)

Given the likelihood of a feminist refusal to concatenate such notions as “purity” with an interdisciplinary, indeed anti-disciplinary, and emancipatory feminist praxis, the “purely” here is surely an unwitting orthodoxism. Kristeva's work does appeal to Moi because her critical enterprise, less essentialist, because less woman-centered than Cixous's or Irigaray's, equates the alien(ating) and the (e)strange(ing) with the radically subversive, especially as exemplified in avant-garde artistic production—compatible with Moi's own attention to (her) cultural difference and aesthetic privileging of modernism. Kristeva also “speaks across” the disciplines of linguistics, semiotics, and psychoanalysis, as an authoritative theoretical subject not bound by the essentializing provincialisms of “pure” feminism. Her formulation of femininity, analogous to other forms of philosophical, political, and social marginality, as a matter of “positionality rather than of essences” (p. 166) is presented as potentially liberationary:

Kristeva's vision … is one in which the hierarchical closure imposed on meaning and language has been opened up to the free play of the signifier. Applied to the field of sexual identity and difference, this becomes a feminist vision of a society in which the sexual signifier would be free to move; where the fact of being born male or female no longer would determine the subject's position in relation to power, and where, therefore, the very nature of power itself would be transformed.

(p. 172)

Such a “vision” is, as Moi admits, “utopian” and thus not likely to be realized soon. But is gender finally the only ground upon which an all too elusive “power” structure is to be, de facto (“therefore”), transformed in such a way as to banish as well class, race, and other historico-political and hierarchically-deployed differences? Many feminists will doubtless remain unconvinced that the globally applied, suspiciously liberal/libertarian free-market and post-sixties-sexual-revolutionary rhetoric of such a “vision” will provide an unproblematical model for a feminist utopia.

Let me hasten to add that Moi does not find Kristeva's theoretical interventions above reproach. She concedes, rather daringly if not downright disablingly, that there are certain political questions to be raised: “I will try to show how many of Kristeva's most valuable insights draw at times on highly contentious forms of subjectivist politics” (p. 169), and “Equally noticeable is the lack of materialist analysis of social relations in Kristeva's concept of ‘marginality’, which lumps together all kinds of marginal and oppositional groups as potentially subversive of the social order” (p. 171). This sounds so damaging as to leave us with little beyond Kristeva's dedication to “anti-essentialism” and commitment to the subversive potential of those “pioneering modes of textual production” Moi also wishes to endorse. One might add that Kristeva's more recent work on the figure of the Madonna is problematical for feminism. It is not easy to see how it is supposed to function as a critique of what Moi unmaterialistically and misleadingly calls “the material basis for women's oppression: motherhood” (p. 168, italics mine). For surely “motherhood” is a cultural and ideological phenomenon, unlike the “womb” and “clitoris,” material sites of reproduction and women's sexual pleasure, respectively, the social control of which constitutes a cross-cultural basis for women's oppression. It is arguable that these texts of Kristeva's are not necessarily recuperable as feminist documents but should be read as a woman's contribution to the discourse of the “eternal feminine” as maternal (read anti-clitoral). Following Gayatri Spivak, one might wish as well to question once again a global “anti-essentialism” as a post-structuralist piety not necessarily useful for feminism. As Spivak has suggested, in this historical moment, women may have to take “the risk of essence” in order to act politically and think really differently, a suggestion recently applauded by Alice Jardine.9

Given the obvious strengths of Moi's readings generally, it is disheartening to find her capable of reductive misreading, historical misunderstanding, a rigid binarism that she deconstructively objects to but does not in practice sufficiently displace, and a rather surprising penchant for notions of authorial greatness and canonicity at odds with her other theoretical preferences. To take the last of these first: In the light of the occultation of Virginia Woolf to be found within both academic feminism and something we could call a popular female readership, Moi's discussion of modernist fiction may at first seem as puzzling as it is illuminating. Only after we recognize the gap between the cult of personality, that has so often made Woolf the object of tokenization as well as feminist admiration, and the challenge presented by her ideology-critical texts, can we appreciate Moi's project of “rescuing” Woolf from critical misapprehension. It is thus doubly disappointing to have Woolf's stature as a canonical writer invoked as a final reproof to recalcitrant feminist critics, as if the true test of a theory were its capacity for dealing with “genius,” a term suggestive of a residual bellelettrism: “The feminist critic thus unwittingly puts herself in a position from which it becomes impossible to read Virginia Woolf as the progressive, feminist writer of genius she undoubtedly was” (p. 18). An author-centered approach to the whole field of feminist theory has its strategic drawbacks, as well. A reading of a “representative” theoretical text can so easily turn into an ad feminam attack; this is the case with Moi's reading of Myra Jehlen's essay, “Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism.”

Originally published in Signs in 1981 and anthologized twice since,10 Jehlen's essay should be understood in its peculiarly American context, a context which Moi seems to have slightly misjudged. Jehlen's advocacy of a “radical comparativism” should be read primarily as a challenge to Elaine Showalter's notion of gynocritics as the principal field for future feminist investigations. Jehlen fears that a feminist focus on women's writing in isolation from men's—for which read the canonical texts of patriarchal culture—will result in the ghettoization of feminist criticism and the institutional cooptation of feminist political energies: “The problem is that the issues and problems women define from the inside as global, men treat from the outside as insular. Thus, besides the exfoliation of reports on the state of women everywhere and a certain piety on the subject of pronouns, there is little indication of feminist impact on the universe of male discourse.”11 This is a reasonable complaint about the institutional effects of women's studies courses that do not also seek to challenge masculinist assumptions in other disciplines. Unaccountably, Moi takes this to mean that Jehlen is advocating abandoning the study of women's writing for a return to studying the canon; this is Moi's first move in a strategy of (mis)reading to make Jehlen's essay fit certain assumptions that Moi, quite rightly, wishes to reprove.

In a sense Jehlen's essay is ripe for such misreading because, in a characteristically American fashion, she eschews a rigorous presentation of her position for an engagingly discursive examination of some of the contradictions that traditionally trained feminist scholars often find themselves confronting, such as the contradiction between an inherited formalist aesthetics and the avowedly political commitments of a feminist critical practice. Few American feminists in departments of literature are likely to be as comfortable as Moi is with the theories of radical textuality she seeks to promote, however interested they may be in such theories' politico-critical possibilities. Jehlen's essay appeals to this lack of ease with left-wing theory while simultaneously claiming for feminism a certain alliance with it: “(I cite Sartre and Macherey more or less at random among more or less left-wing critics because theirs is a situation somewhat like that of feminists, though less difficult, many would argue, in that they already have a voice of their own …)” (p. 194). This is the studiedly “disinterested” stance of the American feminist who wishes to advance difficult, perhaps unpopular ideas without offending anyone or generating a certain characteristically American, irrational response that many Europeans seem to have trouble understanding.

So also, Jehlen is not able casually to banish New Critical criteria from her aesthetic agenda, because such criteria remain the dominant critical currency in American academia, to be abandoned at the risk of disciplinary exclusion and accusations of critical dogmatism at the very least. Hence she maintains an uneasy distinction in her essay between “ideological” or “political” criticism, and “appreciative” criticism. This does not mean that she denies or “forgets” the political nature of criticism generally, as Moi accuses her of doing. The unrigorous terminology is, I think, meant to suggest the often incompletely understood self-division that an American-trained literary critic (“taught to value, above all, value-free scholarship” [p. 194]) who is also a feminist, will most likely experience. For Jehlen, the contradiction between political commitment and aesthetic judgment is precisely the space in which to intervene, “for a work may be, from my standpoint, quite wrong and even wrongheaded about life and politics and still an extremely successful rendering of its contrary vision” (p. 192). Hence Jehlen's reluctance to endorse the gynocritical flight into a realm of women's texts where sympathetic appreciation seems likely, and the more awkward contradiction is not broached.

For Moi, maintaining such a distinction at all, even in the interests of a self-critical rhetoric of “contradiction,” is untenable. She takes Jehlen to task for “undermining” some of “the most basic tenets of feminist criticism” (p. 86) and for “believing” that “critical appreciation” may in fact be “non-political,” thus “abandoning one of the most fundamental political insights of former feminist analysis,” a gesture that she finds “particularly bizarre” (p. 84). As well she might, but Jehlen has done no such thing. Jehlen's essay could profit from a better understanding of the work of Macherey, and from a Derridean recognition that there is no critical stance available outside the enclosure of what one seeks to criticize, but Moi has done her readers a disservice by failing to register the nuances of Jehlen's peculiarly American critique of current feminist practices.

More problematical still is Moi's dismissal of black, lesbian, or black-lesbian criticism as not worth discussing because it presents “exactly the same methodological and theoretical problems as the rest of Anglo-American feminist criticism” (p. 86). Given that Moi herself maintains that the political stakes of a particular enunciation or event determine its meaning (or undecidability) in feminist terms, this seems a questionably off-hand dismissal. It is also arguable that “in so far as textual theory is concerned” (p. 86), lesbian and black feminist criticism have foregounded problems quite different from those of the white Anglo-American mainstream. Analyses of the textual silences surrounding lesbianism, and, alternatively, the construction of a lesbian discourse, as exemplified in several of the articles in the “Lesbian Issue” of Signs,12 go beyond the naive mimeticism of a focus on “lesbian women in literature” that Moi describes. The controversies surrounding Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple and its adaptation for the screen sharply focus a number of significant differences between white middle-class, black masculinist, and black feminist conceptions of textuality, and characterological and narrative functions. When a text's reception is marked by expectations of “typicality” (if not “stereotypicality”) rather than of “individuality” in the representation of characters, for example, quite different theoretical as well as political questions are being broached. Work on the black or native figure as the excluded other, often ex-orbitant to or uncontainable by the text's putative closure is also hardly as innocent of post-structuralist theory as Moi implies; see, for example, Black Literature and Literary Theory, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Gayatri Spivak's recent essays such as “‘Draupadi’ by Mahasveta Devi” and “Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.”13 Such work often refuses to accept the theory it appropriates without also offering a political critique of “imperial theory” or “imperial feminism,” and engagement with such critiques, rather than a mere acknowledgment of them (“In this respect, recent work on Third-World women has much to teach us” [p. 86]), would have improved Moi's claim to be offering a politically astute survey of the field of current feminist theory.

But it is one of the oddities of Moi's structural procedure that she deconstructively objects to her own division of the field into Anglo-American and French feminist theory, yet clings to these categories anyway. No third term is allowed to insinuate itself for long between the poles of this binary opposition, neither the “marginal” feminisms noted above nor the marxist-feminism to which Moi is obviously very much indebted. Indeed, with the notable exception of French theory, as we have seen, the closer Moi comes to approving of a critical position, the likelier she is to dismiss it as outside the bounds of her admittedly limited introductory survey. Such an attempt to clear ground, set limits, and define one's turf is understandable. One can only regret that Moi has found it necessary to define her turf in such an admittedly unsatisfactory way. Nevertheless, she has managed to do two difficult things at once: to introduce a field so as to make it both interesting and negotiable for the novice, and to produce her own theoretical intervention so that the field of feminist debate will never again be quite the same.


  1. Bessie Head, A Question of Power (London: Heinemann, 1974), p. 79.

  2. Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (London and New York: Methuen, 1985).

  3. K. K. Ruthven, Feminist Literary Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984).

  4. Moi, Preface, p. xiii and Notes, p. 174. Subsequent references appear in the text.

  5. Ruthven, p. 8.

  6. Mary Ellmann, Thinking about Women (New York: Harcourt, 1968), Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (1969; London: Virago, 1977). Elaine Showalter, A Literature Of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977), Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), Myra Jehlen, “Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism,” Signs, 6:4 (Summer, 1981), 575-601.

  7. Head, p. 76.

  8. New French Feminisms: An Anthology, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (New York: Schocken, 1981), and Ann Rosalind Jones, “Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of l'écriture féminine,Feminist Studies, 7:2 (Summer, 1981), 247-63, reprinted in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, edited by Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon, 1985).

  9. Alice Jardine, “Men in Feminism: Odor di Uomo or Compagnons de Route?” in Critical Exchange, 18 (Spring, 1985), 27.

  10. Myra Jehlen, “Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism,” reprinted in Feminist Theory: A Critique of Ideology, ed. Nannerl O. Keohane, Michelle Z. Rosaldo, and Barbara C. Gelpi (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982) and The “Signs” Reader: Women, Gender, and Scholarship, ed. Elizabeth Abel and Emily Abel (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983).

  11. Jehlen, “Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism,” as reprinted in Feminist Theory: A Critique of Ideology, p. 190. Subsequent references appear in the text.

  12. Signs, 9:4 (Summer, 1984).

  13. Black Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (London and New York: Methuen, 1984) and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “‘Draupadi’ by Mahasveta Devi” in Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 381-402 and “Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism” in Critical Inquiry, 12:1 (Autumn, 1985), 253-61.

Pamela McCallum (review date summer 1987)

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SOURCE: McCallum, Pamela. Review of Sexual/Textual Politics, by Toril Moi. Signs 12, no. 4 (summer 1987): 822-23.

[In the following review, McCallum outlines Sexual/Textual Politics, praising the work as illuminating and provocative.]

Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics takes as its theme “the methods, principles and politics” (xiii) that inform contemporary feminist literary theory. This provocative and wide-ranging book is not concerned with a conventional survey of contributions to feminist critical practice. Rather, it is concerned with a critical reexamination or decoding of the numerous theoretical models and political strategies that underpin received feminist discourse. Moi argues that both the theoretical and practical limitations of feminist criticism derive from a weakening of critical discussion within the women's movement. Once subversive emancipatory slogans such as “sisterhood” and “being a woman” have been unexpectedly co-opted and neutralized by a homogenizing humanist/essentialist discourse.

The first section of Moi's book—a lucid and concise account of Anglo-American empirical studies—will be quite familiar to readers of Signs. Rather less familiar is her close reading of the new French feminist texts in the second half of the volume. She begins by emphasizing that an empirically minded methodology has stood in the way of a more complex and self-reflexive theoretical discourse in Anglo-American feminist criticism. Ample confirmation of this is to be found in Ellen Moers's Literary Women (1976), whose organizational framework does not go beyond the usual boundaries of Anglo-American empiricism. A similar difficulty occurs in Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own (1977), which privileges a “realistic” mimesis over Virginia Woolf's modernism. In The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar provide what appears to be a somewhat different approach. To a surprising degree, however, they reintroduce a slightly modified empiricist position in the form of an unself-conscious “genetic” historicism. Their nostalgia for origins and preference for narrative homogeneity turns out to be symptomatic of “the desire to write the narrative of a mighty ‘Ur-woman’” (67). Although Moi sees the solid and important accomplishments of Anglo-American feminist texts, she wishes to question the unacknowledged empiricist assumptions that inform them.

For Moi, what distinguishes new French feminism is that it is based on a particular theoretical discourse. Like poststructuralist thinkers (Lacan, Derrida, Barthes, et al.), Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva conceive of the literary work of art as textuality, or écriture, and not as a simple organic unity. However, the theoretical awareness of the French feminists does not blind Moi to the shortcomings of their writings—on the contrary, she aims at a critique and reevaluation of their texts in the light of a more committed sexual/textual politics. Cixous's euphoric desire to exalt woman's writing as an exercise in sensory intensities and unbounded flux culminates in a return to an “original” primordial mother. Such mythological and elementary archetypes ultimately reduce the heterogeneity of her utopian texts to the bad immediacy of the Imaginary. Much the same elimination of disturbing rifts and discontinuities is to be detected in other new French feminist texts. While Irigaray is able to show that the specular structure of patriarchal discourse systematically downplays woman's voice, she makes “power … a question of philosophy alone” and patriarchy “a univocal, non-contradictory force” (147). This metaphysical essentialism turns away from a materialist analysis of power; it also turns away from a concrete historical/political analysis of patriarchal authority. But matters are quite different with Kristeva's more promising semiotics. Struck by Kristeva's poststructuralist critique of the centered subject, Moi awards pride of place to the unsettling disruptions and breaks of her sujet en procès (though not without some hesitations about the later phase). Here the polysemic “free play of the signifier” disrupts “the hierarchical closure imposed on meaning and language” (172). Thus, unlike the empiricism of Anglo-American feminism and unlike the essentialism of new French feminism, the decentered subject of Kristevian semiotics would appear to offer a way out of the impasse of contemporary feminist literary theory.

One may quarrel with some of Moi's assumptions (might not an overemphasis on a disrupted subject run the risk of relinquishing the moment of female subjectivity altogether?), but it cannot be denied that her theoretical defense of a modified Kristevian semiotics is extraordinarily suggestive. She sheds much light on various problems unarticulated or elided in feminist literary theory—particularly the essentialist conception of the female subject as a substantial “I” supposedly unmarked by history. That is a considerable achievement.

Linda Anderson (review date September 1987)

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SOURCE: Anderson, Linda. “Review Article: Questions of Feminist Criticism.” Prose Studies 10, no. 2 (September 1987): 225-30.

[In the following review, Anderson compares the feminist theory that informs The Kristeva Reader with that of two others, concluding that Moi's collection represents an ongoing process of questioning within feminist criticism in relation to other critical theories.]

“The problem is not only who is speaking and how she is speaking but to whom is she speaking and on behalf of whom is she speaking.” (Mary Eagleton in Feminist Literary Criticism, 5)

Literary criticism is necessarily framed (both produced and limited) by the questions we ask of it and which we are prepared to make it ask. Over the last fifteen years feminist criticism—drawing its energies from the politics of feminism—has put forward a series of challenging questions to the literary-critical establishment which have done much to widen the frame of literary studies. Foregrounding women as readers, writers or written—which must be the starting premise of all feminist criticism—does more than provide a new or “different” critical perspective, it also undermines the old claims to universality and neutrality: the recognition of women writers' exclusion from the literary canon exposes the idea of the canon itself as a construct, culturally and historically determined; the partiality of literary values and methods also comes into view when they can be seen as shaped by and reproduced within institutions which marginalize or silence women. The questions which feminism raises spread like disturbing ripples beyond their immediate context, giving the literary-critical establishment back a more limited and uncomfortable reflection of itself.

Recent collections of feminist criticism like Mary Eagleton's Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader and Feminist Criticism and Social Change edited by Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt suggest that feminist criticism now has an established and receptive audience. Both collections highlight the debates and differences within feminist criticism itself. Mary Eagleton situates her extracts—which also in their historical coverage provide a retrospective view of the development of feminist criticism—within a commentary organized around certain theoretical controversies or knots: “Finding a Female Tradition,” “Women and Literary Production,” “Gender and Genre,” “Towards Definitions of Feminist Writing” and “Do Women Write Differently?” The result is to provide a clear framework for viewpoints which could seem bewilderingly diverse and complex. Judith Newton's and Deborah Rosenfelt's intentions are more clearly partisan. Identifying themselves in their Introduction as “materialist feminists,” their radicalism is partly aimed at other feminists who, unlike them, “isolate ideas and language from other realms of struggle” (xix); they oppose an essentialism which renders “gender based relations of power” as “unchanging, universal, monolithic” (xvi-xvii):

But where a materialist-feminist criticism still insists upon the intersection of ideas and language with the social and historical, reminding us that we “can't look to culture alone to liberate us”, much feminist criticism implies the primacy of psyche as the essential terrain on which political struggle is waged, viewing texts, discourses, categories of language and symbolic modes as the major armaments in that struggle. Gilbert and Gubar's Madwoman in the Attic, for example, a rich and perceptive work, focuses almost entirely on the entrapment of women in male literary constructs and women's literary resistance and in so doing emphasizes the power of ideas alone which a materialist feminist criticism would seek to qualify.


The distinction being made is a real one and represents an important “revisioning” of previous feminist work. The language, however, turgidly embattled, seems to fix us in a deadlock of conflict, rather than offer the sense of an expanding horizon.

Differences of view within feminist theory have recently been offered as evidence of a depressing fragmentation, a post-feminism whose first stage of hopeful and unified struggle has ended in dispersal and disunity. Fragmentation in this sense means breakdown, or as Rosalind Delmar has recently called it “a sort of sclerosis of the movement, segments of which have become separated from and hardened against each other,” an image which also seems to suggest a healthy feminist political body in the past.1 Encountering a similar diversity among feminist critics Elaine Showalter, however, has used it as evidence of a resilient anti-authoritarianism. For feminist critics, she argues, there are no originating sacred texts:

Feminist critics do not look to a Mother of Us All or a single system of thought to provide their fundamental ideas. Rather, these ideas have evolved from several sources … we are still far from agreement on a theoretical system (a prospect that many, in fact, would find horrifyingly reductive).2

Paradoxically this argument seems to suggest that feminism has an essential claim to heterogeneity, that feminist critics are unified—though disunited—in their relation to knowledge.

That we should be able to encounter such contradictory positive and negative attitudes to the same phenomenon is not really surprising; nor that part of the struggle should be against ourselves—a complex tugging between the unity of “we” and our diversity. Feminism exists both within and against a political and cultural moment, inevitably partaking of some of the terms it is also attempting to subvert. This point is doubly true of feminist criticism which not only occupies the same contradictory ground as feminism but also duplicates the problem in relation to the academy and the literary establishment, having one foot outside them in the feminist movement and one inside the already existing institutions. The kind of radical challenge, therefore, which I suggested feminist criticism brings to literary studies it must also turn against itself; speaking as a feminist may be only part of the meaning we have when we speak. The questions that Mary Eagleton poses are all important: who is speaking; how is she speaking; to whom is she speaking; on behalf of whom is she speaking. They suggest the complex ways in which meaning is determined, and how the questioning of meaning can happen only within a process of also questioning ourselves.

As one looks back to Elaine Showalter's “lost continent of the female tradition which has risen like Atlantis from the sea of English literature”3 it is possible to see how much is still submerged and taken for granted. The recovery of women's literary history, as both these present anthologies suggest, has been exclusive, reflecting the assumption that all women are white, heterosexual and middleclass. In an important essay, drawn on by both books, Barbara Smith asks us (white, feminist readers) to confront the fact that black women have been silenced and rendered invisible just as effectively by the unacknowledged ideological boundaries of feminist criticism as they have been by the dominant (white, male) culture:

It seems overwhelming to break such a massive silence. Even more numbing, however, is the realization that so many of the women who read this have not yet noticed us missing either from their reading matter, their politics or their lives. It is galling that ostensible feminists and acknowledged lesbians have been so blinded to the implications of any womanhood that is not white womanhood and that they have yet to struggle with the deep racism in themselves that is at the source of this blindness.4

It is salutary to recognize the ways in which feminist criticism can be seen to have created a canon within a canon, colluding unconsciously with the values it claims to challenge.

Feminist criticism cannot claim neutrality in relation to a women's tradition of literature any more than it can in relation to texts by male authors. Value does not simply reside in the text but is produced by a reading which is historically and culturally determined; with each reading therefore our own subjectivity is at stake, is also the subject of interrogation. As both these collections of essays illustrate, some of the best feminist criticism at present has looked at the “cultural construction of subjectivity”5 by investigating “mass culture,” writing which would not be accepted as “literary” at all. The project is not to simply write off the texts and the readers who read them but to open criticism to the complex and dynamic process of reading itself. This is Alison Light about reading Romance Fiction:

We need to balance an understanding of fictions as restatements (however mediated) of a social reality, with a closer examination of how literary texts might function in our lives as imaginative constructions and interpretations … Subjectivity—the ways in which we come to express and define our concepts of our selves—then seems crucial to any analysis of the activity of reading. Far from being “inward-looking” in the dismissive sense of being somehow separate from the realities of the state or the marketplace, subjectivity can be recognized as the place where the operations of power and the possibilities of resistance are played out.6

Turning its political energies to opening up the problem of the subject, feminist criticism has become fused or confused with deconstruction and post-structuralist psychoanalytic theory. Once the subject's identity and gender are no longer perceived as the referent we have to begin with but as constituted in and by language, the text becomes not only the site of the production of meaning (and sexual difference) but also a model of the fiction that identity is. For some feminists this kind of deconstructive activity constitutes the most radical dismantling of a whole system of thought which puts the universal male subject at its centre; for others it is a displacement of a political struggle onto language and theory, where, alienated from the specificity of women's lives, it becomes largely academic. Since I believe that both these different viewpoints are in some measure true I want to situate them in the context again of feminism's paradoxical relationship to other criticism.

Speaking as a critic who believes in the radical implications for feminism of deconstruction Toril Moi discounted in her book Sexual/Textual Politics that black or lesbian criticism has anything new theoretically to offer: “So far, lesbian and/or black feminist criticism have presented exactly the same methodological and theoretical problems as the rest of Anglo-American feminist criticism.”7 But a theory of the subject which cannot also address differences between subjects except as sexual difference is in danger of reinstating the universal categories it has sought to undo. Because it means that a woman submitting to theory is “renouncing the specificity of her own relationship to the imaginary … any theory of the ‘subject’ has always been appropriated by the ‘masculine,’” Luce Irigaray has warned.8 In a recent article Jane Gallop has also suggested that deconstruction can be seen as a way of stemming the threat of feminism:

I would speculate that the phenomenal spread of deconstruction in American departments of English is in actuality a response to the growth of feminist criticism. At a moment when it is no longer possible to ignore feminist criticism's challenge to the critical establishment, deconstruction appeared offering a perspective that was not in opposition to but rather beyond feminism, offering to sublate feminism into something supposedly “more radical”.9

For all that it seems to radicalize the very terms of discussion by seeming to go beyond feminism, deconstruction can bind feminists back into the very institutions they have sought to change. The critique for feminists must be double-edged: asking Mary Eagleton's questions again seems appropriate if the academy (for all the intervention of theory still male-dominated) is not going to speak through deconstruction for “us.”

The work of Julia Kristeva has an interesting place within these discussions. For some critics her work can simply be included with that of other French feminist critics offering an abstract account of sexual difference as inscribed within language. For others she is the writer who has most thoroughly carried through the implications of deconstruction in relation to women, avoiding, as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray have not, the idea that there can be a writing which is essentially feminine, an écriture féminine. Jacqueline Rose is perhaps right to suggest that Kristeva has “too long served as an ideal”;10 the danger is that her work is discarded without being understood or we lose a sense of the specific and ongoing nature of her struggle with/for meaning.

The Kristeva Reader, edited by Toril Moi, brings together work spanning her whole career. It contains well-known essays like “Women's Time” and extracts from Revolution in Poetic Language, 1974, and About Chinese Women, translated 1977, as well as some of her most recent writing, including a chapter from Histories d'amour, 1983, entitled “Freud and Love” and the essay “Psychoanalysis and the Polis,” 1983. Toril Moi's introduction very usefully situates the development of Kristeva's thought both in relation to her own personal development as “foreigner in Paris” to mother and psychoanalyst, as well as to the changing political context she in part shared with the Tel Quel group.

Starting from deconstruction, from an understanding of meaning as produced by rather than represented within writing, Kristeva herself raised important objections to it. Though it attempts to dismantle metaphysics, she thought, it remains itself metaphysical, “enclosed in the field of the signifier” (17). What she brought to deconstruction from her engagement with psychoanalysis was an account of the subject which has involved her throughout her work in a difficult but important ambivalence. On the one hand deconstruction could be seen as not going far enough, unable to account for the forces that disrupt language or the signifier and effect changes in the social structure; on the other it provides no space for the subject:

The grammatological deluge of meaning gives up on the subject and must remain ignorant not only of his functioning as social practice, but also of his chances for experiencing jouissance or being put to death.11

Her account of the subject is also aimed, it seems, at bringing back some notion of history and social practice, but her notion of the subject—and politics—is posited first of all on disruption, on negativity.

Kristeva has never allied herself with feminism; what she gives us is a theory of subversion and marginality. Her concept of the semiotic which she links to pre-oedipal primary processes goes on disrupting language or the symbolic even after the subject has successfully positioned him/herself in language. However, the semiotic does not constitute another language or place from which to speak; its disruptive effects can only be known from within language, from within the symbolic which bears the mark of its pressure. This semiotic dynamic, the inscription of an archaic relation to the mother, is important for creativity, but access to it is not simply the privilege of women; much of Kristeva's work has focussed on the semiotic within the work of male writers. What it does seem to give us is a model for the central dilemma of women, wanting to challenge self-definition whilst retaining the possibility of identity and speech. As Toril Moi writes:

The Kristevan subject is a subject-in-process (sujet en procès), but a subject nevertheless. We find her carrying on a difficult balancing act between a position which would deconstruct subjectivity and identity altogether, and one that would try to capture these entities in an essentialist or humanist mould.


Kristeva's work certainly raises more questions than it answers. But perhaps what is most important for feminist criticism is that it constitutes itself as a process of questioning which cannot be easily closed.


  1. “What Is Feminism?” in What Is Feminism?, edited by Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), p. 9.

  2. “Introduction” in The New Feminist Criticism, edited by Elaine Showalter (Virago: London, 1986), p. 4.

  3. Elaine Showalter, “A Literature of Their Own” in Eagleton, p. 11.

  4. “Towards a Black Feminist Criticism” in Newton and Rosenfelt, p. 3. A later part of this essay, which does not include this quotation, is reproduced in Eagleton, pp. 77-81.

  5. Catherine Belsay, “Constructing the Subject: deconstructing the text” in Newton and Rosenfelt, p. 45.

  6. “‘Returning to Manderley’—Romance Fiction, Female Sexuality and Class,” Eagleton, p. 141.

  7. Sexual/Textual Politics (Methuen: London, 1985), p. 86.

  8. Speculum of the Other Woman, translated by Gillian C. Gill, (Cornell U.P., 1985), p. 133.

  9. “Reading the Mother Tongue: Psychoanalytic Feminist Criticism,” Critical Inquiry 13 (Winter, 1987), 314-29 (p. 315).

  10. “Julia Kristeva—Take Two” in Sexuality in the Field of Vision (Verso: London, 1986), p. 163.

  11. Revolution in Poetic Language, p. 142; quoted in Moi, p. 16.

Jane Marie Todd (review date fall 1987)

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SOURCE: Todd, Jane Marie. Review of Sexual/Textual Politics, by Toril Moi. Comparative Literature 39, no. 4 (fall 1987): 364-66.

[In the following review, Todd maintains that Sexual/Textual Politics succeeds in uncovering the theoretical assumptions of feminist theory, but finds some weaknesses in the second half of the book.]

Published as part of the New Accents series, Sexual/Textual Politics presents itself as an introduction for the general reader to “the two main approaches to feminist literary theory, the Anglo-American and the French” (xiii). This is not quite an accurate picture, however. Although Moi does indeed discuss the major texts and authors of feminist criticism in the United States and French theoretical writings on woman in France, her book does not so much “introduce” an already-existing discipline or critical theory as argue for the pressing need for one. For, as Moi realizes, feminist literary theory does not yet exist, not in the United States, where feminist critics have been suspicious of theory, nor in France, where women philosophers and psychoanalysts have rarely concerned themselves with literary issues. Moi's discussions—incisive, critical but admirably well-balanced—uncover the theoretical assumptions at work in both Anglo-American feminist criticism and French theory and reveal how those assumptions are often in conflict with the political goals of feminism.

The book opens with a chapter on Virginia Woolf that underlines a major weakness in American feminist criticism, its failure to recognize Woolf's important literary and feminist contributions. The problem lies in her modernism and in what Moi calls her “deconstructive” approach to language. Critics such as Elaine Showalter, seeking the “message” behind A Room of One's Own as well as an authentic voice recording female experience, are dismayed by Woolf's elusive narrative voice, her irony and playfulness. Moi argues that this view rests on “a strong, unquestioned belief in the values … of traditional bourgeois humanism of a liberal-individualist kind” (6). Those values, she goes on to say, are in complicity with patriarchal ideology. Drawing on the theories of Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva, Moi convincingly shows that the politics of Woolf's writing lies in a textual practice that disrupts patriarchal ideology and symbolic structures.

The theoretical and political contributions of feminist critics are not negligible, and Moi is careful to underline these even as she questions certain of their assumptions. Early feminist critics effectively challenged the New Critical doctrine about the apolitical and ahistorical nature of the literary text and the reading process. Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, Moi writes, was “a powerful fist in the solar plexus of patriarchy” (26). She suggests that “Millett's importance as a literary critic lies in her relentless defence of the reader's right to posit her own viewpoint, rejecting the received hierarchy of text and reader” (25).

The weakness of Millett's approach, however, lies in assumptions about the relation of language and literature to society and about the nature of patriarchal ideology. Her notion of ideology as “remorseless, all-encompassing … monolithic” cannot account for the subversive strategies that have resisted this ideology. Indeed, it cannot account for the possibility of its own enunciation. Further, her “rhetorical requirements … force her into sometimes inaccurate or truncated accounts” (27) of complex theories or narrative strategies. In the end, she fails to consider the work of art as “a signifying process” (76) and to seek out the gaps and inconsistencies of ideology that are evident in texts. Mary Ellmann's little-known Thinking about Women, on the other hand, succeeds where Millett fails. This “ironic masterpiece” (35) “illustrate[s] the self-contradictory tangles that emerge as soon as one aspect of ideology is confronted with another” (38).

As feminist criticism shifted its emphasis from the male to the female writer, the relentless criticism of masculist ideology was replaced by a search for a uniquely female tradition. In this search, Moi argues, feminist critics have often reinstated the respect for authorship that the first wave of feminist criticism attacked. For example, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's Madwoman in the Attic “never once questions the authority of the female author” (62). Their critical practice still relies on the author as its “transcendental signified” (62). And, in Literary Women, Ellen Moers “avoids confronting the fact that the category of ‘greatness’ has always been an extremely contentious one for feminists, given that the criteria for ‘greatness’ militate heavily against the inclusion of women in the literary canon” (55). In simply expanding the traditional canon to include more women, feminist critics fail to question the assumptions that brought about their exclusion in the first place. In contrast to the critic who chooses to “sit quietly and listen to her mistress's voice as it expresses authentic female experience” (78), Moi argues that a theory that views both reading and writing as textual production will subject even texts written by women to “irreverent scrutiny” (78).

Throughout the first part of her book, then, Moi is arguing for a critical practice that combines political commitment with the subtle textual analysis of the post-structuralists. As her analysis of Woolf (as well as Monique Wittig) makes clear, her method does not locate the political import of literature in its representation of the social or of the author's experience, but rather in its very textuality.

Some readers will be dismayed by Moi's decision not to discuss black and lesbian feminist criticism on the grounds that it presents “exactly the same methodological and theoretical problems” (86) as Anglo-American feminist criticism in general. This exclusion unfortunately perpetuates the marginalization within feminist criticism of black and lesbian writers and their critics, a tendency that poses certain theoretical issues relevant to Moi's thesis. It points not only to an unwarranted reverence for the traditional canon and for the institutions that maintain it, but also to a major flaw in a critical practice that puts a premium on “female experience.” Once the identification of author, character, and reader is taken to be a primary goal, it seems inevitable that critics should seek out authors similar to themselves and should have difficulty dealing with the heterogeneity among women who write.

The second part of the book deals with the theoretical writings of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. Cixous is praised for showing how the “metaphysics of presence” has always arranged its binary oppositions along the axis of the male/female couple, but she is criticized for retaining “a vision of woman's writing steeped in the very metaphysics of presence she claims she is out to unmask” (110). Irigaray is similarly praised for her critique of patriarchal discourse but criticized for her “idealism” and “essentialism.” Yet Moi misses much of the force of Irigaray's work when she characterizes her fundamental strategy as a miming of male philosophical discourse and then objects that “what she seems not to see is that sometimes a woman imitating male discourse is just a woman speaking like a man” (143). Irigaray's “mimicry” is not imitating male enunciation, however, but rather taking on the properties that philosophical discourse has assigned to woman, lending a voice to the object/other in order to mock, in a female voice, a discourse that has always assumed the passivity and silence of the female.

Only Kristeva manages to escape the charge of essentialism, and only by refusing all definitions of the feminine. “In a sense … Kristeva does not have a theory of ‘femininity,’ and even less of ‘femaleness.’ What she does have is a theory of marginality, subversion and dissidence” (164). But this is “paradoxically one of the reasons why Kristeva, as opposed to Cixous and Irigaray, cannot strictly speaking be considered a purely feminist theorist” (148-49). The pressing question that Moi does not ask is why contradictions inevitably arise when female theorists attempt to apply Derrida's analysis of metaphysics to women's issues and why Kristeva's anti-essentialism leads to a distancing from feminism. Since, at another point, Moi argues that “conceptual terms are at once politically crucial and ultimately metaphysical” (160), it seems that these contradictions are not altogether avoidable or even undesirable. Can feminism as a political movement exist without a definition of “woman”?

A major structural weakness of this second part of the book is that Moi seems to have forgotten that her subject is feminist literary theory. It is of course true that French feminist theorists are not primarily concerned with the study of literature, but Moi might have attempted to connect their concerns with the issues raised in the first part of her book. Regrettably, she does not consider the work of such American-based critics as Shoshana Felman, Naomi Schor, Peggy Kamuf, Nellie Furman and others who have already begun to articulate French theory and the study of literature. This conjunction, exploited so productively in the chapter on Woolf, tends to get lost in the more philosophical discussions of the last part of the book.

It is rather unfortunate that Moi's book appeared only months after Alice A. Jardine's Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity (1985), a monumental work that will without question change the landscape of contemporary feminist theory. In some ways, the two books complement each other; Jardine takes both American feminist criticism and French theories of the feminine as her immediate context but does not discuss either at any length. Nevertheless, while Moi is sometimes arguing that Lacan and Derrida can provide the needed theoretical framework for feminist criticism, Jardine is convincingly punching holes in their assumptions and rhetorical use of “woman.” Since Jardine and Moi could not consult each other's work directly, the reader is left to construct a dialogue between them. We are fortunate to have these two books to spark productive theoretical debate for years to come.

Catherine Slawy-Sutton (review date October 1987)

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SOURCE: Slawy-Sutton, Catherine. Review of Sexual/Textual Politics, by Toril Moi. French Review 61, no. 1 (October 1987): 101-02.

[In the following review, Slawy-Sutton praises Sexual/Textual Politics, asserting that Moi's ideas are brilliant, thought-provoking, and well-documented.]

In this stimulating and well-documented introduction to feminist literary theory [Sexual/Textual Politics], Moi posits as a core idea that no reading of literary texts is politically “innocent” and, therefore, that the political implications of feminist critical study should be made clear. She proceeds to a detailed examination of the best known Anglo-American and French theorists, and, after bringing the reader to a full grasp of their arguments, she cleverly moves on to a deconstruction of their underlying assumptions. She is particularly critical of the Anglo-American feminists who, she thinks, have largely ignored the form of the texts, thereby reducing female literature to realist autobiographies. Moi attempts to show how their aesthetics are really inherited from the values and canon defined by bourgeois patriarchy. Elaine Showalter's reading of Virginia Woolf, for instance, overlooks the novelist's “theory of the relations between sexism and fascism,” and Kate Millett's rejection of Freud ignores the power of the unconscious. Other flaws of such theorists are: 1) they assume that patriarchal ideology is homogeneous, and 2) they posit ‘woman’ as an essentialist, homogeneous category. Most feminists have therefore failed to thoroughly challenge the aesthetic categories of patriarchy. Moi's object is to deconstruct both the dichotomy between feminine and masculine and the recurring opposition between the political and the aesthetic.

In spite of some of the same contradictions and of their “uncompromising intellectualism,” the French theorists have made powerful contributions. Moi exposes how Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva are indebted to Lacan's reading of Freud and to Derrida's analysis of patriarchal binary logic. Cixous's belief in the bisexual nature of humans places her in an anti-essentialist vein, and yet her evocations of female writing as a poetic song related to the pre-Oedipal phase do suggest a homogeneous concept of woman. Luce Irigaray's view of women's oppression as philosophical is not entirely satisfactory. Kristeva's contributions as a linguist seem to provide some answers to Moi's recurring question about the reasons why women still have managed to write while oppressed. Kristeva rejects politics based on any absolute form of identity. She refuses theories of “femaleness,” “femininity” or of a “feminine” form of language. Her truly non-essentialist view, as well as her theories of “marginality” and of language as a “complex signifying process,” represent a breakthrough for future criticism, and Moi concludes: “We all use the same language but … we have different interests. … The meaning of the sign is thrown open—the sign becomes ‘polysemic’ rather than ‘univocal.’ … The power struggle intersects in the sign” (158). However, Kristeva's investigation of language in the individual “speaking subject” leads Moi to find the linguist's poetics politically ineffective, for it overlooks any analysis of the relationship between the subjective and the social.

This brilliant, concise essay will bring about fervent discussions. Toril Moi's intellectual quest for a feminist analysis that would show how the language of literature disrupts the social and aesthetic categories of conventional thought might seem to suffer from some of the same drawbacks that it sets out to attack. First, one has to wonder how valid she would find a political interpretation that did not agree with her own politics. Second, at times one fails to understand how a political reading, coupled with references to Marx, Freud, Barthes, Lacan and Derrida as authorities, is less patriarchal in orientation than the approaches she criticizes. But her primary request is for the sort of research that would show how nonconventional forms of writing prefigure social revolution. Moi implies that a combination of Kristevan and Derridean theory would do just that: expose the subversive elements of signs in a given context.

It is not only in its call for a study of female tradition as an “urgent political necessity,” but also in the process of provoking thought that one will find this book very useful.

Carol H. Smith (review date March 1988)

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SOURCE: Smith, Carol H. “The Literary Politics of Gender.” College English 50, no. 3 (March 1988): 318-22.

[In the following review, Smith outlines the feminist scholarship of Sexual/Textual Politics, comparing it to the political and social concerns of Making a Difference and Rewriting English, two other gender studies.]

These books [Sexual/Textual Politics, by Toril Moi, Making a Difference, by Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn, and Rewriting English, edited by Janet Batsleer, Tony Davis, and Rebecca O'Rourke], all part of the Methuen “New Accents” series, edited by Terence Hawkes, represent the offerings on gender in a series intended to respond to a time of radical social change. All three explore significant aspects of gender studies; one in particular is important because it reflects a current debate within feminist literary criticism. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, by Toril Moi, which appears at first to be an introductory survey of the major figures of literary feminism from Kate Millett and Simone de Beauvoir to the present, is, in fact, a critique of two major strands of feminist thought, American feminist criticism and French feminist theory, from the viewpoint of a new generation of feminists impatient for social change and critical of both the “humanism” of an earlier generation of American critics and the apolitical stance of the French. Moi's book reflects her belief that feminist criticism has been stifled by the absence of a genuine critical debate about the political implication of its theory and methodology. She takes as a central principle of feminist criticism that no account (including her own) can ever be neutral, and she justifies her criticism by saying that the principle that has worked so well to challenge patriarchal thought should be used to examine the biases and assumptions of earlier feminist criticism. Her own biases, she tells us, are those of both an insider and an outsider: as “a Norwegian teaching French literature in England,” she remains in some ways marginal to both the Anglo-American and French traditions; yet as a “white European trained within the mainstream of Western thought,” she sees both traditions as crucial to her own critical and political practice (xiv). (It must also be said that her biases include a preference for deconstructive theory and little personal familiarity with the historical atmosphere in which American feminist criticism arose.)

In tracing the history of Anglo-American feminist criticism, Moi begins with two early classics, Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (1969) and Mary Ellmann's Thinking about Women (1968). Both set the standard for feminist criticism of the 1970s, especially Millett in her bold break with the practices of the New Criticism. Moi credits Millett with defending the reader's power to free herself from “the received hierarchy of text and reader” (25) in her insistence on the social and cultural contexts of the text and in reading “against the grain.” Her powerful thesis that sexual domination pervades cultural ideology is marred by her insistence on sexual politics as “a conscious, well-organized male conspiracy” (28).

The publication of Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own (1977) marked a major shift from Ellmann's “images of women” criticism to an interest in the special history of women. Arguing that the female literary tradition had come from a relationship between women writers and their society and that it was society, not biology, that shaped women's perceptions of the world, Showalter ushered in a new era of feminist scholarship. In coining the witty terms “feminist critique” for criticism dealing with women's reading of male texts and “gynocriticism” for women's reading of female texts, Showalter brought many early issues of feminist theory into open discussion. While Moi acknowledges the importance of this work, she faults Showalter for encouraging an uncritical acceptance of women's texts as realistic reflections of experience while searching out the underlying contradictions, absences, and silences in male texts. Showalter could, of course, respond that this criticism reflects not only Moi's bias for deconstructive criticism, but a misunderstanding of Showalter's view of female readers in relation to male texts.

Another important study, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), offered a theory of female creativity that has influenced many later critics. They asserted that women's writing is characterized by a palimpsestic pattern—a surface design that conceals or obscures deeper meanings and thus simultaneously conforms to and subverts patriarchal norms. Moi approves their awareness that texts can deceive but feels that they do not go far enough to disrupt the authority of the text. As a reproof, she quotes a famous passage by Roland Barthes on “the death of the Author.” This objection gets to the heart of Moi's response to all American feminist theory—the too easy acceptance of a female authorial voice.

Moi is obviously more sympathetic to the tradition of French feminist theory. She considers Simone de Beauvoir to be the greatest feminist theorist of our time. Beauvoir's main thesis in The Second Sex (1949) is that “throughout history, women have been reduced to objects for men: ‘woman’ has been constructed as man's Other, denied the right to her own subjectivity and to responsibility for her own actions” (Moi 92). Beauvoir's monumental study shows how these assumptions affect all aspects of social, political, and cultural life. She also shows how women themselves have internalized this objectified status, living in a constant state of “inauthenticity.” Beauvoir's famous statement, “One is not born a woman, one becomes one,” sums up her refusal to accept the essentialism of any claims of a “woman's nature” or essence.

In contrast to Anglo-American emphasis on practical criticism, the major figures in French feminist thought after Beauvoir, Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva write about the construction of sexual difference and women's relation to language. All three are strongly influenced by Lacan's reading of Freud, especially his distinction between the pre-Oedipal Imaginary stage of human development and the child's entry into the Symbolic order, which links to the acquisition of language. Woman's relationship to the language of the Symbolic order (which sees her as Other) centers French theory.

It is out of this context that Cixous proposes an alternative to the hierarchical, binary oppositions Derrida describes as characterizing Western thought. As an alternative to oppositions such as Activity/Passivity, Culture/Nature or Head/Emotions (in which women are always on the losing side), Cixous sets the concept of multiple, heterogeneous “difference” and a new écriture feminine (feminine writing). Cixous attempts to link women's writing to the Imaginary realm that precedes Symbolic language. Moi credits her with moving the whole feminist debate about the problems of women and writing away from the sex of the writer to an analysis of the articulations of sexuality and desire in the text. While acknowledging the importance of Cixous' work for all feminist thinkers, Moi notes her own “slippage” into the very dichotomies Cixous abhors.

For Moi, as for many other feminists, Irigaray's importance as a theorist rests on Speculum (1974), her masterly critique of Freud's theory of femininity seen in the context of Western philosophers from Plato to Hegel. Using the figure of the speculum, a mirror-like instrument used by gynecologists to shed light on and to penetrate the mysteries of a woman's sex, Irigaray literally shapes her inquiry to mirror this male approach to woman; the speculum section is in the center of the work, framed by her discussion of Freud and Plato. Freud's famous question “What is woman?” and his assumption that woman's nature is a “dark continent” are the predictable end of a long misogynist tradition. Moi sympathizes with Irigaray's visionary attempts to construct a new theory of femininity and a new woman's language, but she echoes the same criticism she made of Cixous' similar efforts; both assign fixed characteristics to woman. More importantly, Moi reflects the concerns of a younger generation of women impatient with utopian dreams when women's material well-being should be addressed.

The work of Julia Kristeva addresses the questions of women's oppression and emancipation from a position somewhat closer to material reality. Seeing language as the context of social meanings but rejecting modern linguistics as authoritarian, Kristeva shifts the feminist debate from language itself to the speaking subject and from linguistics to semiotics. For her, language is a signifying process that is interactive. Rather than seeking a women's language she urges the study of specific linguistic strategies in specific situations. If all meaning is contextual, and isolated words or syntactic structures take on the meaning provided by individual speakers, then language itself cannot be said to be either sexist or non-sexist, especially when similar speech by men and women is interpreted differently. In her theory of marginality and subversion, Kristeva recognizes the power of the marginal and the heterogeneous to subvert the central structures of traditional linguistics and the Symbolic realm. But, as Moi points out, this theory of revolution, although less visionary than the theories of Cixous and Irigaray, avoids any discussion of conscious decision-making or revolutionary agency.

Even though Moi is more sympathetic towards Kristeva's ideas than those of any of the other feminist thinkers she discusses, she protests Kristeva's lack of a materialist analysis of social change, saying “it is still not clear why it is so important to show that certain literary practices break up the structures of language when they seem to break up little else” (171).

In part, the value of Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics lies in the examination of both the French and the American traditions so that their differences can be assessed. While she describes the separation of the two traditions as more rigid than it actually was (and is), she obviously does this to keep clearly before us a consistent evaluative standard and a sense of how these approaches fit her sense of today's needs. We feel her deep personal concern for the importance of change in women's lives and her admiration for the work of the critics and theorists she treats. The critical standards and political concerns that emerge from her study are clear: she warns American critics of the unreliability of the text as a reflection of reality and of an unconscious acceptance of the aesthetics of a formalist criticism; she warns the French that their dreams of a woman's language will lead to the same separatist categories that have marginalized women throughout history and chides them for their lack of attention to social reform.

But in attempting her own deconstruction of both traditions, Moi reveals an inconsistency that troubles us as readers partly because it reflects a fundamental dilemma facing all feminists today. The real question this study poses, an all too familiar one for feminist critics and researchers, is whether it is possible to work for social change with only the tools of deconstruction. Deconstruction itself recognizes this problem (which is why Derrida insists that deconstruction is a method, not a theory). It is clear in several places in her text that Moi too is aware of this problem; her preference for the semiotics of Kristeva and the theories of Louis Althusser and Pierre Macherey demonstrates this. Yet many of her objections to individual critics or theorists betray a mixed message. An example of this ambivalence is her approval of the use of women's texts to open up the lives and work of forgotten authors and a new women's history, yet she rejects the possibility of the author's presence in these same texts. Despite this problem, Moi's book represents an important effort to sort out the differences in assumptions and methodologies in feminist criticism and a willingness to make explicit the sometimes contradictory demands of her own theoretical position.

Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism, edited by Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn, collects essays by feminist scholars that echo many of the same issues as Moi's book, but from the added cultural perspective of the social sciences. The excellent introductory essay by the editors describes the same “dual task” of feminist scholarship: “deconstructing predominantly male cultural paradigms and reconstructing a female perspective and experience in an effort to change the tradition that has silenced and marginalized us” (1). Part of the charm of the opening overview comes from the matching of sections on feminist developments in anthropology, history, and literature against a story by Isak Dinesen, “The Blank Page,” which beautifully represents many of the issues of patriarchal power and the challenges to that power possible for those who are marginal. Other essays survey the state of feminist criticism and language studies, French theories of the feminine (adding the work of Monique Wittig to the theorists Moi presents), and psychoanalysis. Essays by Bonnie Zimmerman on lesbian feminist criticism and Susan Willis on the work of four black women writers give focus to the book's purpose of exploring the many ways feminist studies open up the literary canon. One particularly impressive essay by Cora Kaplan deals with socialist feminist criticism, a subject especially interesting in light of issues raised in Moi's study. Kaplan describes the split between “liberal humanists” and socialist feminist critics on the relative value of feeling versus social analysis in literature. She traces the origins of this division to Rousseau and Wollstonecraft in a fascinating historical/literary analysis.

Rewriting English: Cultural Politics of Gender and Class, by Janet Batsleer, Tony Davis, Rebecca O'Rourke, and Chris Weedon, adds a specialized perspective to the subject of gender and class. Written by members of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, it explores the history of a group project that began as an examination of the literature of the 1930s but grew into a project of “contextual” studies that looked behind such decade labels to determine the forces which “construct” dominant versions of literary history. In particular, the Birmingham group moved their study away from “literature” and closer to “English studies,” to focus on the dominance of certain literary-critical ideologies, their forms of power, and their institutional locations. Chapters deal with literacy and literature, educational priorities, working-class writing, the difference in the forms of popular fiction read by men and women, and women's reading and writing. As the project developed, the relationship of gender and class became an important category, and several chapters include gender issues. Two paired chapters investigate the ways in which both masculine and feminine romances help to constitute a sense of gender in readers; their depressing conclusion seems to be that women read romances because they end in marriage, while men read adventure fiction to reinforce their masculinity—women in male books are present only as sexual objects. The concluding chapter notes that contemporary socialist feminism has opened up many questions of class and gender that must now be part of new definitions of contextual studies.

Different as these three books are, their combined presence in an important series addressing new issues in literary studies shows the important place feminist scholarship now holds, at least in academic departments, and the growing general interest in the relationship of gender and class. All three in different ways show not only the rapid growth of gender scholarship, but also the movement to expand literary studies into more broadly social and political concerns.

June Howard (review date spring 1988)

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SOURCE: Howard, June. “Feminist Differings: Recent Surveys of Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 1 (spring 1988): 167-90.

[In the following review, Howard surveys various volumes of feminist thought, including Sexual/Textual Politics, praising Moi's book for showing “an extraordinary range, sophistication, and power.”]

The title of one of the books I review in this essay—Making a Difference—evokes some crucial elements of the situation of feminist literary criticism and theory at this moment. Feminist critics, like those of other persuasions, necessarily write these days in dialogue with (whether from or against) a theoretical perspective in which “difference” is a privileged term. From Ferdinand de Saussure's “in language there are only differences” to Jacques Derrida's “différance” and since, the recognition of the way in which meaning is constituted through difference, and the way in which our apparently stable world is ceaselessly constituted and reconstituted through language, has become pervasive. That perspective has proved more compatible with feminist thought than many in the United States first expected and has opened up (as is repeatedly demonstrated in these books) fascinating explorations of the linguistic construction of sexual difference, providing a new way of understanding the ways in which woman and women are not born but made. But feminist criticism is also concerned with “making a difference” in the vernacular sense. For most of us feminist criticism matters at least in part because it contributes to the feminist political project, to our effort to make a difference in the social world. From this perspective too the category of difference opens up a whole range of concerns, from the need to insist that the apparently symmetrical pair “male/female” invokes not simply a conceptual opposition but an unequal power relation, to the immediate and profound political questions about class and race framed today in feminist politics in terms of the differences among women.

The title of Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics also evokes these two ways of thinking about “making a difference,” and its division into a section on “Anglo-American feminist criticism” and a section on “French feminist theory” even more clearly indicates how, in recent years, feminist literary study has seemed torn between two radically different approaches. A concern with how literature represents the social reality of women's oppression and resistance to oppression, and the declaration of commitment to the perspective of women writers and readers and, more, to the practical interests of women, has characterized “Anglo-American” sexual politics, as opposed to “French feminist” textual politics. (Those quotation marks, which I will not always use but which are implied when I use the terms, are meant to remind us that these terms indicate intellectual traditions which are only imperfectly described by the national attributions, as explained in more detail in several of these volumes.) The “French,” of course, might quite properly challenge the very terms in which I pose this opposition, pointing out that I have not problematized the category “women,” that there can be no social reality that is outside language, that some of them have explicitly rejected “feminism” as a politics too deeply implicated in the very system it criticizes. One can criticize the politics of Anglo-American feminist criticism in various ways, but the French feminisms frequently challenge the very categories in which feminist politics have usually been understood. And because of the prestige that French theory has acquired in the U.S. academy, the Francophile perspective has seemed the less embattled, if not the less strenuous, choice. These books are true to their moment in presenting the relation between Anglo-American and French feminist criticism as a confrontation, even an impasse. But they also provide evidence that that moment is already passing, perhaps that it has already passed.

Certainly the appearance of these volumes surveying and assessing the state of feminist literary criticism and theory is a cause for celebration. They demonstrate that feminist criticism has achieved an extraordinary range, sophistication, and power. There is very good work in these volumes, from many different points of view, on many different topics, and a moment for collective self-congratulation is in order. Although they contain little that is, in 1987, radically new, they are a practical aid in achieving continuity as a new generation of students encounters feminist criticism, and as the growing influence of feminist criticism, and as the growing influence of feminist criticism within the academy engages established scholars in an effort to come to terms with it. Not long ago, when asked for an introduction to feminist criticism, one could only suggest Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own or loan out tattered photocopies of articles now conveniently reprinted in Showalter's New Feminist Criticism; now we have a choice of introductory and synthesizing works. Finally, the publication of these books is a cause for celebration because it attests to the field's increasing legitimacy. Our marginalization has begun to break down; we are increasingly a force to be reckoned with.

Three of these books come from one publishing house, the English firm of Methuen, which has been active in publishing and commissioning theoretically and politically informed cultural analysis. Their New Accents series (to which Moi's and Greene and Kahn's books belong) in particular consists of clearly written treatments of theory which not only explain the backgrounds and premises of the school in question but also engage critically with the material, proposing left appropriations of contemporary critical thought—not only post-structuralism but the full, rich range of cultural theory as well. The appearance of such popularizations directly addresses the tensions within feminist criticism. It is not only these French feminisms but what we call “theory” in general that many of our colleagues and students—and probably some of my readers—regard with ambivalence or outright hostility.

From the point of view of institutional politics there is good reason for that hostility. Theory is generally associated with elite institutions and advocated by people who have the time and resources to master intricate, sometimes arcane systems of thought, and the confidence—frequently rooted in social privilege—to lay down the law to other critics. I sat at a conference not long ago and listened to a graduate student from a prestigious department at an Ivy League university deliver an elegant and highly theoretical—although ultimately not very substantial—talk denouncing the elitism of literary studies and advocating the examination of a particular form of oppositional popular culture. Then I listened to a young faculty member from a two-year satellite campus of a state college deliver a painfully simple explanation of a theory that has been rather old hat for some years now and proceed to misapply it. Perhaps others in the room were, like me, thinking about aspects of what we were seeing and hearing that could not politely be mentioned—the class system in the academy, the mobilization of a theoretical vocabulary as a claim to authority, the probable difference between the two speakers' access to information about current developments in literary theory and to expert mentoring and the certain difference in their teaching loads. After watching such a performance one might argue that “theory” serves as the intellectual capital of an academic elite, enhancing speakers' prestige by demonstrating their ability to perform hermetic rites that generate more and more complex readings of texts (more and more often, of critical texts). One might argue theory has become a self-contained and self-serving scholasticism, which despite its obsessive and now virtually formulaic invocation of difference makes no meaningful, certainly no political, difference at all.

Yet the same concepts that the first speaker invoked contributed to shaping the perspective from which I describe the event. What we call “theory” is neither empty of content nor uniform in its political implications, and much of it enjoins us to reflect critically on how power functions in cultural institutions and on our own practice. (Such self-reflection is precisely what was missing at that conference.) Theoretical work can be not only a good career move but illuminating and unsettling, not only professionally useful but intellectually and politically empowering. Assuming one wants to do intellectual work in the first place, one cannot avoid abstraction and conceptual difficulty. French criticism in particular is part of a body of thought that seeks to reconstruct our most basic assumptions about identity, language, social existence. One simply cannot do that in everyday English or, for that matter, French. Ordinary language and common sense are themselves sites where those assumptions are constructed and maintained, and the radicalism and the difficulty of theory are in some sense inseparable. But to question one's assumptions is not necessarily to abandon one's politics, and to acknowledge difficulty is not necessarily to endorse elitism. I would argue that the effort to disseminate, without dissipating, the radical implications of critical theory is not only compatible with but crucial to the radical enterprise of feminist scholarship. Each of the books I review here—indeed, everything feminist critics write these days—must negotiate these tensions, and I will try to suggest what kind of criticism and what kind of a critical community each is proposing.

Elaine Showalter's introduction to The New Feminist Criticism treats the turn to theory as the distinctive characteristic of the present moment in feminist literary scholarship. A first stage, in Showalter's version of a now-familiar formulation, concentrated on “exposing the misogyny of literary practice,” a second on developing “the discovery that women writers had a literature of their own” (pp. 5-6). Showalter, as the phrase evoking the title of her best-known book1 reminds us, was one of the architects of that second, gynocritical stage. Here she welcomes a third stage in which—in response to both issues developing within the field and to the influence of “radical critical thought from other countries” (p. 8)—feminist critics have begun to rethink the conceptual basis of the discipline. But the collection seems less concerned with making peace with French feminism than with occupying the terrain of theory for Anglo-American criticism. That radical, foreign critical thinking here remains almost as alien as Showalter's introductory characterization makes it sound, and the topics viewed through the lens of theory are, as represented by the three categories into which Showalter divides the anthology, very much those of the first two stages: the sexism of literary institutions, the nature of the enterprise of feminist criticism, the literature of women.

This is an essential book because of the quality of the articles it reprints, most of which are already influential. Showalter, with an admirably, predictably sure grasp of the field, has selected essays that are both excellent and representative, and puts the context and significance of each in clear focus. She delivers, as she promises, a collection of “the most important and controversial essays written by pioneers in the field over the past decade” (p. 3). I am willing to believe that we are entering a third stage in feminist criticism, despite the fact that Showalter also found three stages of development in English fiction by women in A Literature of Their Own and three stages in the history of psychiatry in The Female Malady. I am less convinced, however, that this is the new feminist criticism, as the title announces. Showalter's formulation certainly has descriptive power—feminist critics have turned to theory—but it is given little analytic development: she never really says where theory is leading us. Showalter's effort to “represent a variety of positions and strategies engaged in a vigorous internal debate” (p. 4) enables the productive diversity of the book, and perhaps for the reader coming to it from mainstream criticism it produces an impression of controversy and innovation. From within the field, it appears an inconclusive pluralism, in which it matters less what theory is used or what it is used for than that theory is invoked.

Unarguably, however, in these essays the various theories have produced fascinating results, and theory also seems to have worked its legitimating magic. The appearance of a volume such as this, lauded on its back cover not only by Barbara Johnson (Harvard—the affiliations are conspicuously listed with the comments) and Barbara Gelpi (Stanford) but also by Geoffrey Hartman (Yale) and Jonathan Culler (Cornell), marks the visibility and prestige of feminist criticism. Showalter acknowledges that this could be a cause for worry as well as celebration: some “contend that acceptance by the critical establishment is a dangerous sign that the vitality and integrity of American feminist criticism are being compromised” (p. 16). The voices of feminist criticism that Showalter has selected for us in this volume are allusive, flexible, sophisticated, usually although not always professional voices rather than the “angry and denunciatory,” “lyrical and emotional” (p. 4) voices one heard in the early years of the enterprise. We need all these voices, and I am not disturbed by the book's success or its polish. I am disturbed by the casual quality of Showalter's nod toward the problem, and by the lack of any effective resistance to the way in which an anthology like this collaborates with the academic star system. We are blending all too smoothly into conferences like the one I described earlier, and we need to maintain more critical distance from the routinely brutal competitive practices of our profession.

Sexual/Textual Politics, Toril Moi's sharply focused and frequently polemical account of the principles of feminist literary theory, is an impressive accomplishment. In a book only 200 pages long, Moi offers both a summary and a critique of the major elements of Anglo-American and French feminist criticism. Her demonstrations of, for example, the ways in which feminist critical projects are undercut by traditional methods or essentialist thinking are extraordinarily incisive and persuasive. Necessarily this is a process of reduction, and much is lost in the process. But the fact that references to Sexual/Textual Politics have so quickly become ubiquitous is evidence that we have badly needed such a clarifying reduction. For all our fascination with theory, in most feminist criticism these issues remain implicit; even if they are made explicit, the relations between the perspective advocated and other points of view generally remain unarticulated. In contrast, Moi is very much aware of the place of each argument and practice in the field, and aware, too, of the nature of her own intervention. It takes a great deal of sophistication to write a discussion of feminist literary theory as lucid and apparently simple as Moi's.

Her rigorous critiques of Anglo-American feminist criticism do occasionally slip into nastiness. The opening section, which skillfully opens up the central issues of the study through a provocative and persuasive reading of Virginia Woolf, is marred by the gratuitously hostile tone of Moi's reading of Anglo-American feminists', and particularly Elaine Showalter's, readings of Woolf. It seems peculiar for her to attack Showalter's humanism by detouring through a critique of the work of Georg Lukács, a denunciation that is a familiar ritual in British Marxist criticism but is scarcely relevant for most of Moi's readers. More often, however, I find Moi's representations of a given critic's work both accurate and fair. She gives a full and warm appreciation of a wonderful and relatively neglected early work, Mary Ellmann's Thinking about Women, and a useful history of the beginnings of feminist literary criticism, stating in a sentence or two critiques that are not new but have not often been so cogently compressed. On the “images of women” school, for example, Moi comments:

writing is seen as a more or less faithful reproduction of an external reality to which we all have equal and unbiased access, and which therefore enables us to criticize the author on the grounds that he or she has created an incorrect model of the reality we somehow all know. Resolutely empiricist in its approach, this view fails to consider the proposition that the real is not only something we construct, but a controversial construct at that.

(P. 45)

Less familiar and equally decisive is Moi's searching critique of the ways in which Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's Madwoman in the Attic equates character and author, reduces the complexity of texts to a true meaning which always turns out to be “feminist rage” (p. 62), assumes a monolithic patriarchal ideology and a virtually biological, equally monolithic femaleness, and ultimately relies on the ideology of the integrated individual self. All those attitudes, Moi shows, tend to efface difference within and among women and elevate the difference between women and men to a static, essential division.

Those who align themselves with the Anglo-American tradition are likely to think of Moi as a follower of the French, but she is not simply an advocate for one school. Moi's theoretical position parallels the biographical position she evokes in her preface, that of “a Norwegian teaching French literature in England,” a foreigner who nonetheless is “a white European trained within the mainstream of Western thought” (p. xiv)—that is, a kind of distant relation both outside of and engaged in a family quarrel. Her expositions of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva are both appreciative and critical; if, in Moi's view, Anglo-American critics are empiricist and insensitive to difference, Cixous is essentialist and Irigaray is ahistorical. Moi is gentler with Kristeva, whose work she acknowledges she has found “the most challenging point of departure for my own feminist enquiry” (p. 150). She argues effectively that although “Kristeva's vision is not exclusively or essentially feminist,” it is profoundly useful for feminism, implying a “vision of society in which the sexual signifier would be free to move; where the fact of being born male or female no longer would determine the subject's position in relation to power, and where, therefore, the very nature of power itself would be transformed” (p. 172).

Although Moi is certainly closer to French than to Anglo-American feminist critics, I doubt that her book will find much favor in the French camp. It is less Moi's arguments than her framing of the field and her style that place her slightly outside the French tradition and will, I suspect, alienate those who align themselves with it. Like many feminists, Moi identifies the position from which she speaks far more self-reflectively and self-revealingly than is acceptable in traditional literary criticism, but unlike the authors of some of the playful texts she discusses or, say, Jane Gallop (the most visible and consistent U.S. practitioner of this technique), she does not allow the deconstructive process to double back upon her own writing. Nor does she challenge the Anglophone focus on the much-translated trinity of Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva, omitting a host of French critics who would necessarily have complicated her picture of the field. It is also not likely to endear Moi to the Anglophone but Francophile feminist critics who have been influenced by Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida that she omits them for “lack of space” (p. 98). Sexual/Textual Politics would do more to suggest the present direction (as opposed to the present state) of feminist criticism if it considered the many critics who cannot be accommodated in the dichotomy that structures the book. But it goes a long way toward overcoming the impasse between Anglo-American and feminist criticism simply by making clear exactly what it is that divides them.

Despite its utopian conclusion, the perspective Sexual/Textual Politics seems most strongly to direct us toward as a way out of the static Anglo-American/French confrontation is one which the book discusses only briefly: Marxist feminism. Moi positions her discussion of that tradition at the pivotal slash in her title, in the chapter at the beginning of the second book that makes the transition between the Anglo-American and the French schools. She gives another indication that this point of view can disrupt the dichotomy that structures the book when she appends to the sections on Anglo-American criticism and French theory in her suggestions for “Further reading” a section on Marxist feminist theory. Although critical of Marxist feminist work that simply adds class to other topics of concern, Moi finds that some Marxist feminist cultural criticism enables the critic to link the literary work “to a specific historical context in which a whole set of different structures (ideological, economic, social, political) intersect to produce precisely those textual structures” and opens up the possibility of “studying the historical construction of the categories of gender and … analysing the importance of culture in the representation and transformation of those categories” (p. 94). She does not attempt to lead the way into this field, explaining that her “project has been to develop a critical presentation of the current debates within feminist literary criticism and theory. It is a sad fact that Marxist-feminist concerns have not been central in this debate, and it is also, perhaps, an indictment of this book that its basic structure does not present a more radical challenge to the current dominance of the Anglo-American and the French critical perspectives” (p. 93). One can only agree and turn, as I will later in this essay, to Feminist Criticism and Social Change: Sex, Class, and Race in Literature and Culture.

To acknowledge that Moi is right about her book's limitations, and to wish that she had gone on to do more of the work for which she constructs an agenda, is not to diminish the book's real and important contribution to the very project I recommend in this essay. Sexual/Textual Politics is more than just a useful introduction because of its eloquent advocacy of a feminist criticism that is both thoroughly theoretical and thoroughly political. Moi's uncompromising critique of essentialism and her utopian vision of a sexual multiplicity beyond the binary masculine/feminine opposition do not prevent her from seeing the necessity, in our present circumstances, of “defending women precisely as women” (p. 82). From her description of the “two-pronged” (p. 23) battle of the feminist critic working both for institutional change and within literary-critical discussions, to her diagnosis of Anglo-American criticism as “despite its often strong, explicit political engagement … not quite political enough … in the sense that its radical analysis of sexual politics still remains entangled with depoliticizing theoretical paradigms” (pp. 87-88), Moi resists any tendency to attenuate the radicalism of feminist criticism. The recognition that the field is defined, not by an object of study or a method, but by a political project, provides a solid theoretical grounding for the pluralism that characterizes, and should characterize, feminist critical practice. Moi writes that the “political evaluation of methods and theories is an essential part of the feminist critical enterprise” (p. 87). That evaluation is precisely what Moi herself is engaged in, and it is what makes the book, indeed, essential.

Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism, another volume in Methuen's New Accents series, covers a wider range of topics in more detail than Sexual/Textual Politics. The introduction defines feminist scholarship and briefly surveys its accomplishments in anthropology, history, and literary criticism, and eight subsequent essays cover the varieties of (Anglo-American) feminist literary criticism, the politics of language, French theories of the feminine, psychoanalysis and feminism, subjectivity and socialist feminist criticism, lesbian feminist criticism, black women writers, and feminist reinterpretations of the canon. All the essays provide both some overview of existing work and some original propositions; the balance varies, but the tendency of the collection is toward summary rather than innovation. This book takes the reader further into the questions than Sexual/Textual Politics does, without providing so many answers.

Editors Gayle Greene and Coppélia Kahn's introduction opens up a broad, well-chosen range of topics and issues. Their approach to feminist literary criticism as one branch of an interdisciplinary enquiry into gender—although it leads them into some uninspired summaries—is an important perspective; the necessity of disrupting disciplinary boundaries ought to be asserted more frequently in the other books reviewed here. In what they write about literary criticism, Greene and Kahn try to combine what is valuable in Anglo-American criticism and French theory, but their synthesis is not entirely coherent or convincing. Does Derrida's work really imply that “an alternative literary canon based on redefined values … can only reduplicate the initial system” (p. 26)? To equate Derrida's philosophical analysis of the nature of binary oppositions with a statement about a social institution like the academic literary canon is to oversimplify his thought; to see feminist struggles over interpretation and evaluation as a mirrored reversal of masculinist assertions is to produce “deconstructive feminist criticism” as the kind of demoralizing, depoliticizing practice that the authors reject later in the same paragraph. And what are we to make of an essay that espouses deconstruction but on occasion uses “female experience” (p. 6) with apparent unself-consciousness? Here, as in many such attempts at synthesis, attitudes and categories from each school exist side by side, rather than producing a new position, from which one could launch a more satisfactory discussion of the nature of canonicity and “experience.”

But the reader will learn a great deal from Making a Difference about the terms in which this discussion can be carried on. The encapsulation of the “work”/“text” distinction and its history in Nelly Furman's “politics of languages,” for example, works both to open up the critical community by making ideas accessible and to put issues in broad perspective; I only wish, in this instance, that she had gone on to include the more current term “discourse.” The impact of poststructural theory and “French feminism” is prominent in about half the essays in Making a Difference; this volume, like the others under review, attests to the enormous energy Anglophone critics are expending in the effort to come to terms with “theory.” Such translations or imported thought are undeniably a somewhat domesticated, denatured product, but they provide useful introductions to—not, one must insist, substitutes for—the material itself. For example, Ann Rosalind Jone's valuable work appears in three of these volumes; she goes beyond Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva to include Monique Wittig and, in the essay on “French Theories of the Feminine” in this volume, a wide range of lesser-known French and American practitioners of “Franco-feminist” criticism.

One of the most valuable essays in Making a Difference (the only previously published essay in this collection, it is also reprinted in The New Feminist Criticism), Bonnie Zimmerman's “What Has Never Been: An Overview of Lesbian Feminist Criticism” concentrates primarily on issues internal to the development of that perspective within Anglo-American criticism (it does include a paragraph about work on Wittig). As Zimmerman acknowledges and concisely demonstrates, the projects and problems of this enquiry have run parallel to those of the rest of the field: the critique of heterosexism in literary criticism (frequently, feminist literary criticism), the recovery and rereading of texts to establish a lesbian literary canon and critical tradition, the debate over the demand for appropriate role models in literature, the search for a lesbian aesthetic. To that extent the article might seem to confirm Toril Moi's unfortunately, even offensively, dismissive comment that “so far, lesbian and/or black feminist criticism have presented exactly the same methodological and theoretical problems as the rest of Anglo-American criticism” (p. 86). But Zimmerman's discussion of what is at stake in the definition of lesbianism (pp. 183-86) cogently characterizes the “special problem” of the field and suggests ways in which lesbian feminist criticism opens up new problems and solutions for the field as a whole.

Zimmerman demonstrates a sharp awareness of the historical mutability of sexuality and sexual identity, writing for example that to “state simply that Mary Wollstonecraft ‘was’ a lesbian because she passionately loved Fanny Blood, or Susan B. Anthony because she wrote amorous letters to Anna Dickinson, without accounting for historical circumstances, may serve to distort or dislocate the actual meaning of these women's lives (just as it is distorting to deny their love for women)” (pp. 198-99). In her thoughtful and informative “Inverts and Experts: Radclyffe Hall and the Lesbian Identity,” in Feminist Criticism and Social Change, Sonja Ruehl extends this exploration and provides a model of materialist lesbian feminist analysis grounded in such historical circumstance. The next step, it seems to me, is the fuller incorporation of the historicized account of the category of “identity” (fundamental to both essays) proposed by historians of homosexuality such as Jeffrey Weeks. The questions raised, from the nature of identity and the history of sexuality to the relation of sexual and gender identities to each other and their imbrication with language and cultural texts, will require the most sophisticated theories (literary, cultural, social, political) we can muster.

As we work through the political implications of our theories and subject our politics to theoretical analysis, both theory and politics may be reshaped. There is a basic tension between a gay “politics of identity” that speaks in terms of self-affirmation, community, and the rights of a sexual minority, and the strict antiessentialism of the academic theorists of gay liberation.2 From Zimmerman's suspicion of a lesbian feminist universalism that seems to imply the innate superiority of women to men (p. 199), to Moi's scrutiny of feminist theory for the slightest taint of essentialism, academic feminism too has insisted on—as in the title of Greene and Kahn's introduction to Making a Difference—the “social construction of woman.” I applaud the consensus against cultural feminism (as we have come to call it) and against the idealization of woman that emerges in all the books under review here, and I hope we will increasingly find ways to mobilize that critique in practical politics. But, conversely, I do not think we have sufficiently theorized the appeal of the politics of identity, sufficiently distinguished between the distinct determinations of various levels of—admittedly constructed—identity, sufficiently explored the nature of agency. It is not that I want to retreat from the insights of constructionism; rather, that it seems to me that to move forward our emphasis must fall less on ‘correct’ demonstrations of the fictionality of the subject and more on investigations of the constraints within which identity is elaborated and the uses to which it is put.

It is in attempts to think about confluence of and contradictions between sexual, racial, class, and gender identity that such problems are most directly faced. Cora Kaplan's “Pandora's Box: Subjectivity, Class, and Sexuality in Socialist Feminist Criticism” speaks directly to this problem. Kaplan gives, in thirty pages, both a brief, thought-provoking characterization of that field and an original argument of extraordinary interest. This is not an accessible summary of issues in socialist feminist criticism; that task is better performed by editors Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt in their introduction to Feminist Criticism and Social Change. Kaplan's essay is not without flaws; although she usefully problematizes most of the categories of her analysis, she fails to follow through on her own premises when she treats the French Revolution and Romanticism as more or less static entities. She cannot quite keep all the balls in the air at once. But the opening of investigations such as these suggests that a new framework of discussion is being worked out, one which through its methodological self-consciousness and its historical specificity can incorporate both the “Anglo-American” responsiveness to “experience” and the “French” sensitivity to “difference.”

Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense Spillers, contains fourteen essays on the full chronological range of fiction by Black American women, from slave narratives through contemporary science fiction, and an introduction and afterword commenting generally on the nature of this literary tradition. The contributors' approaches are ones widely used in Anglo-American examinations of women's literature: the retrieval of lost texts and historical contexts, the analysis of stereotypes, appreciative explication, mythic and archetypal reading, literary-historical arguments for women's traditions, structural analysis. Conjuring is not fully commensurable with the other books discussed in this essay, because it takes a body of literature rather than a body of criticism as its topic, and it is striking that the same is true of the essay in Making a Difference that deals with issues of race—Susan Willis's article on “Black Women Writers” (and in fact she discusses only some twentieth-century Afro-American novelists), not Black feminist criticism or theory.

I find myself, on the one hand, uncomfortable with that pattern and wondering about the editorial decisions that produced it. Does it not suggest the correlation of privilege, in this case white skin privilege, with abstraction, and oppression with confinement to the concrete, that Adrienne Rich has recently written about?3 On the other hand, one can only sympathize with Barbara Christian when she complains that she is “tired of being asked to produce a black feminist literary theory as if I were a mechanical man.”4 In the context of the politics of our profession, that request does sound like a demand that the field be legitimated by a theoretical defense of what it does. The way the request is framed, too, actually refuses the theoretical insights of recent years; the theory of race, gender, and culture that would fill the place opened for it in these books is unlikely to be either narrowly literary or exclusively feminist. For example, Gayatri Spivak's development, in essays published during the past decade, of a deconstructivist “reading method that is sensitive to gender, race, and class” presents a formidably difficult and almost counterdisciplinary appearance.5 The books under review here, with their genuine diversity of opinion, nevertheless speak from the Western, Anglophone academy; they stretch to the inclusion of antihumanist poststructural theory and the cultural work of women of color—but not to the two in combination.

But discussion of race and ethnicity as socially constructed, fundamentally fictional categories, in the vocabulary of contemporary critical theory, have been appearing for several years. Like the academic theories of homosexuality discussed earlier, these investigations exist in a certain tension with the political movements that made them possible. It is a delicate matter to balance a recognition that “race” is the invention of human beings, not nature, with attention to its social effectiveness. As Steven Epstein writes, this is a dilemma “by no means peculiar to the gay movement: How do you protest a socially imposed categorization, except by organizing around the category?”6 These investigations, too, suggest the emergence of a new framework of discussion, and the widest implications of the controversy we tend to think of too narrowly as the opposition between Anglo-American and French feminist criticism.

Barbara Christian, however, might say that I am still looking for Black feminist literary theory in the wrong places. In the essay quoted above, she rejects French feminism and explicit theory altogether, writing that “people of color have always theorized—but in forms quite different from the Western form of abstract logic. And I am inclined to say that our theorizing (and I intentionally use the verb rather than the noun) is often in narrative forms, in the stories we create, in riddles and proverbs, in the play with language, since dynamic rather than fixed ideas seem more to our liking.”7 In fact, people do often use “theory” these days not in its strict sense of the systematic statement of underlying principles but to describe writing of many schools that works to expose and dismantle the assumptions that underlie our common sense and our habitual ways of reading. I would argue against much in Christian's essay. But I do think that it is precisely because Afro-American women storytellers have been so marvelously inventive that a book of applied criticism like Conjuring can open a place for the radical innovations of a cultural politics of women of color.

The title Conjuring itself indicates ways in which the book's project exceeds its gynocritical study of Black women writers. In her introduction, Pryse describes conjuring as both a subject matter for Black American fiction, notably in the work of Charles Chesnutt, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker, and as a metaphor for writing. Black women novelists, this book suggests, cast a spell of “mutual naming” (p. 5) that creates a community. And, as Marjorie Pryse writes in the introduction, the title also is “a reminder … of the ‘magic’ involved in writing literary criticism as well as fiction, and of the oath we all must take to continue the work of speaking with each others' tongues in our mouths” (p. 22). The emphasis on finding a voice, on the creation of an affirmative identity and tradition, is familiar in Anglo-American feminist criticism. On the other hand, the emphasis on the world-shaping magic of narrative and the elision of the boundary between literature and criticism suggests an affinity with poststructuralism. Or we might juxtapose with the image of conjuring Peter Dews's defense of Adorno's philosophy of identity (as against the poststructural critique of the coercive ego), in which the “metaphor of the spell … captures both the repressive and enabling features of processes of socialization.”8

In her afterword, Spillers raises the problems of theorizing self and community and argues explicitly that Black women's writing and contemporary critical theory are converging. She affirms the distinctive narratives of Black American women as self-naming, socially symbolic acts without assuming that either gender or race constitutes an essential identity, and asserts the possibility of not simply reversing the values of the canon but transforming its very function. Spillers' own language is dense and “theoretical,” but she predicts that the tradition now being created will bring together the two discourses, “the language of learning woven into the tongue of the mother” (p. 260). That suggestion poses a challenge all feminists share, a challenge to develop both concepts and critical community, a challenge to ask ourselves what it would mean to have a theory for “everyday use.”9

The essays collected in Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt's Feminist Criticism and Social Change represent, they tell us, “an attempt to theorize about and to practice a materialist-feminist criticism” (p. xi)—that is, “a criticism combining feminist, socialist and anti-racist perspectives” (p. xxvii)—of literature and, more broadly, culture. Feminist Criticism and Social Change can be seen as a challenge from the Left to the portrait of contemporary feminist literary criticism that Elaine Showalter's New Feminist Criticism has given us. I too have inhabited for some years that vexed region of the connection, or failure of connection, between Marxism and feminism; reviewing these previously published, often well-known essays again it seems to me that they do, as the editors assert, “acquire new dimensions of meaning when presented as part of a collective critical endeavor” (p. xi).

Newton and Rosenfelt's introduction rigorously but clearly defines the project of a “materialist-feminist” criticism and review the theoretical problems it entails. The individual articles are excellent, and each contributes a distinctive perspective to the common project. The section on theory includes not only Barbara Smith on Black feminist criticism and Ann Rosalind Jones on the French feminisms but also Paul Lauter's study of the formation of the U.S. literary canon and pieces by Catherine Belsey on the construction of subjectivity and by Michèle Barrett on ideology and gender in cultural analysis (the latter two excerpted from their widely read books of 1980 but including some more recent revisions). The section of “applied criticism” examines literature and films by British and American women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although the essays range quite widely within that focus, the fact that no other cultures and no male writers are represented marks this as a retrospective collection. These are not programmatic applications of the theories in the first half of the book (no one, for example, has tried to use the overly schematic categories Michèle Barrett derives from Terry Eagleton's work of a decade ago), but rather enrich and extend the dialogue. The diversity of this book makes clear that there is no one method, no global theory for a materialist feminist criticism; gender is inscribed too thoroughly and unevenly through the representations and practices of different societies at different moments for there to be one approach that can infallibly seize its significance.

Newton and Rosenfelt sharply and successfully distinguish materialist feminist from other feminist criticisms, asserting, much in Toril Moi's vein, that traditional attitudes can vitiate our project: patriarchy becomes tragedy, feminism “comedic essentialism,” and, obscuring “historical change, cultural complexity and women's agency, they [feminist critics] themselves replicate the habits of thought they intend to challenge” (p. xvii). They distinguish their own concern with the economic even more rapidly from that of “traditional Marxists, for whom gender is not a major category of analysis” (pp. xiii-xiv).

But that orthodox Marxism is, surely, a straw target. At the very moment when Newton and Rosenfelt explain that they use “materialist feminist” rather than “socialist feminist” because the former term is “more inclusive” (p. xviii), they attach a note acknowledging that feminist criticism has much in common with “the new Marxist cultural theory” and citing the work of Tony Bennet, Fredric Jameson, Michael Ryan, and Terry Eagleton (p. xxiv n. 17). Does this mean that their refusal of the terms “Marxist feminism” and “socialist feminism” is purely verbal and strategic? Or is materialist feminism divided by a fundamental theoretical and political break even from the undogmatic, nondeterminist, lower-case “marxism” now being articulated in the academy? To unfold the implications of those questions would take Newton and Rosenfelt further into specialized debates over Marxism than they, and probably their readers, are willing to go in this introductory volume. But those answers are, surely, necessary if we are to move forward from where Newton and Rosenfelt have taken us, and I wish they marked more clearly as controversial the question of how and why Marxism is to be revised or abandoned.

Certainly, however, the notion of “materialist feminism” works for Newton and Rosenfelt. It allows them to assemble a powerful collection of essays, a kind of rainbow coalition that is very much in the spirit of Left politics these days. It is an unequivocal gain to have opened up space for Black feminism at the center of this enterprise. A genuine reorientation is visible here: this is a different collection than the one that would have been assembled under the sign of socialist feminism.

Feminist Criticism and Social Change takes up versions of all the issues I have identified in this essay as the questions of the moment, and many more. It is taking, and will still take, some time to bring together categories like “experience” and “agency” with categories like “subjects in process.” But the reward is suggested by such illuminating, if at this moment still rather strenuous, passages as this one by Catherine Belsey.

Women as a group in our society are both produced and inhibited by contradictory discourses. Very broadly, we participate both in the liberal-humanist discourse of freedom, self-determination and rationality and at the same time in the specifically feminine discourse offered by society of submission, relative inadequacy and irrational intuition. … One way of responding to this situation is to retreat from the contradictions and from discourse itself, to become ‘sick’. … Another is to seek a resolution of the contradictions in the discourses of feminism.

(P. 50)

Newton and Rosenfelt's collection provides an excellent introduction to these issues, because it is so clearly written and so intelligently arranged.

It is a good introduction, too, because it so strongly affirms equal commitment to conceptual rigor and to historical information, to theory and to politics. “Materialism” is, indeed, it seems to me, a site from which we can make theory, poststructural and otherwise, useful for feminism. High theory teaches us that language is never a transparent window to what is “real,” and it is often taken to mean that language is reality. But one can believe in the shaping force of discourse, as an element in all aspects of social existence, without abandoning a belief in nondiscursive forces. To say that there is no human reality outside of language is not the same as saying that there is nothing but language. The task of a materialist feminism is to attend to the consequences of the first position, without slipping—either in theory or practice—into the second.

The theoretically eclectic, politically engaged path Feminist Criticism and Social Change marks out is not an easy one. Newton and Rosenfelt comment on how much knowledge, in this perspective, must be brought to bear on a single object of study. They call it a “double shift,” but it seems like even more than that: “work on the power relations implied by gender and simultaneously on those implied by class, race, and sexual identification; an analysis of literature and an analysis of history and society; an analysis of the circumstances of cultural production and an analysis of the complexities with which at a given moment in history they are inscribed in the text” (p. xix). There is the vertiginous difficulty, too, of dialectical thinking, of constantly interrogating the categories of one's own analysis, simultaneously working with them and against their limitations. The difficulties are formidable. It is not surprising that brilliant critics like Spivak and Kaplan have published relatively fragmentary work over the past decade—work which is now more accessible in volumes of collected essays.10 The achievements of materialist feminist criticism are also formidable, and are constantly increasing. As Newton and Rosenfelt put it: “The uncompromising complexity of its vision may sometimes discourage those who long for certainty and simplicity. None the less, in its insistent inclusiveness, in its willingness to embrace contradictions, materialist feminist analysis seems to us the most compelling and potentially transformative critical approach to culture and society” (p. xxx). Both in its content and in its style, materialist feminism seems to me to offer the best hope for an approach that resists both the glamour of high theory and the comforting certainties of political correctness and common sense, for an approach that is theoretically rigorous, historically specific, and politically engaged.

To many spectators of the current scene in literary criticism it may seem that “difference” has become a mere formula and that “French” and “Anglo-American” critics simply cannot talk to each other. But the moment of these books is, I think, the moment of our movement past that static confrontation; the increasingly obvious inadequacy of those labels marks the opening up of an area between the lines and the slow emergence of a new framework of discussion. Many critics I have not mentioned, from Alice Jardine to Elizabeth Meese, as well as those I have, contribute to a project that is more than the sum of its parts. One must reckon, too, with the increasing volume of “gender criticism,” which threatens to substitute itself for a more openly political feminist criticism but which also offers an intellectual and strategic opportunity. The turn to theory and to gender need not be depoliticizing. Its consequences depend on what we choose to do, on the kind of theory and the kind of critical community we build.

Those articulating a new framework for feminist criticism and theory must negotiate not only the less and less interesting tension between Anglo-American sexual and French feminist textual politics but also a tension that runs, discontinuously but consistently throughout feminist thought: the tension between an emphasis on the similarities between women and men and the demand for equality, and an emphasis on the differences between women and men and the affirmation of the female. One might crudely correlate those two attitudes with the first two stages of feminist criticism, the critique of sexism in literature and literary institutions and the celebration of women's literature. The opposition between Anglo-American and “French feminism” cannot be mapped onto this tension in any simple way. Accusations invoking it fly in every direction: the French accuse the Americans of “phallic feminism,” the Americans accuse the French of glorifying femininity; Anglo-American critics appeal to female experience, Francophile theoreticians deconstruct the category.

The current turn to theory correlates with a third position, advocated by Julia Kristeva (and prefigured, I would argue, in much feminist thought, certainly by Virginia Woolf), in which “the very dichotomy man/woman as an opposition between two rival entities may be understood as belonging to metaphysics. What can ‘identity,’ even ‘sexual identity,’ mean in a new theoretical and scientific space where the very notion of identity is challenged?” Kristeva is primarily interested in proclaiming the end of anthropomorphism and the triumph of individual difference or “singularity.” But we may want to linger a moment with the recognition of “the multiplicity of every person's possible identifications” which she also invokes.11 I would argue that Kristeva and so apparently Anglo-American a theorist as Adrienne Rich are converging when Rich in a recent essay struggles with the recognition that “from the outset [my] body had more than one identity. … I was located by color and sex as surely as a Black child was located by color and sex—though the implications of white identity were mystified by the presumption that white people are the center of the universe.”12 Or we might compare sociologist Bonnie Thornton Dill's argument against “the concept of sisterhood as a global construct” and call for “a more pluralistic approach that recognizes and accepts the objective differences between women.”13 For feminist scholars, as for theoreticians of sexuality and “race,” Kristeva's question about what identity can mean is not a rhetorical one but the starting point for one of the most urgent investigations we can undertake. Although we must stop believing quite so firmly in common sense versions of identity, we cannot stop analyzing them, for identities inevitably constitute the locations from which we act. The intertwining of the subjective and social in literature provides, of course, one of the most productive sites for such investigation.

Socialist and Marxist feminist criticism have, from the beginning, posed questions about the multiplicity of identities and determinations. They have not always managed to avoid subordinating class to gender or gender to class, but they have always tried to deal with both, and the materialist feminist criticism represented by Feminist Criticism and Social Change puts race as well at the center of this investigation. In this sense, materialist feminist criticism has always been “gender criticism”; it has never been exclusively fascinated by a unitary female identity but has always asked difficult, decentering questions about the circumstances under which “woman” is constructed. As Cora Kaplan writes in “Pandora's Box,”

Masculinity and femininity do not appear in cultural discourse, any more than they do in mental life, as pure binary forms at play. They are always, already, ordered and broken up through other social and cultural terms, other categories of difference. … Class and race ideologies are, conversely, steeped in and spoken through the languages of sexual differentiation.

(P. 148)

The concern of materialist feminist criticism with gender, race, and class is not a mere addition of topics, but a perspective that transforms our understanding of all those categories and of the functioning of culture in general.

Whether we think of the possibilities for a global women's movement imaged by the Nairobi Women's Conference, or the continuing explorations of identity and difference in literary theory, the usefulness of the category of difference is not exhausted. Both require us to question the “we” of feminism. They do not ask us to stop affirming our experience, but they do ask us not to stop there, not to take experience as a final term; they do not ask us to give up being women and sisters, but they do ask us, in the interest of an inclusive and effective feminism, to inhabit those identities more self-consciously and provisionally. We cannot afford to let “difference” become a formula if we are to develop a theory and a critical community that is captive neither to abstraction nor to experience but is responsible to both.


  1. Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (Princeton: N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970).

  2. The quoted phrase is from Jeffrey Weeks, Sexuality and Its Discontents: Meanings, Myths, and Modern Sexualities (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), 185. See also Steven Epstein, “Gay Politics, Ethnic Identity: The Limits of Social Constructionism,” Socialist Review, nos. 93/94 (May-August 1987): 9-54.

  3. See Adrienne Rich, “Notes Toward a Politics of Location,” in Women, Feminist Identity, and Society in the 1980s, ed. Myriam Diaz-Diocaretz and Iris M. Zavala (Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1985), 7-22.

  4. Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory,” this issue, p. 69. This article originally appeared in Cultural Critique 6 (Spring 1987), the first of two issues composed of papers from a conference on “The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse.”

  5. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (New York: Methuen, 1987), 81.

  6. Epstein, 19.

  7. Christian, 68.

  8. Peter Dews, “Adorno, Post-structuralism, and the Critique of Identity,” New Left Review, no. 157 (May-June 1986): 42-43.

  9. My allusion is to the short story “Everyday Use,” by Alice Walker, which deals with some of the same issues through narrative. The story appears in In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (New York: A Harvest/HBJ Book, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973), 47-59.

  10. Spivak's collection cited above. Kaplan's collection, which includes “Pandora's Box” but not the essay on Aurora Leigh that appears in Feminist Criticism and Social Change, is Sea Changes: Culture and Feminism (London: Verso, 1986).

  11. Julia Kristeva's “Women's Time,” translated by Alice Jardine and Harry Blake, appeared in Signs 7 (Autumn 1981): 13-35; it was reprinted in Toril Moi, ed., The Kristeva Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).

  12. Rich, 1.

  13. Bonnie Thornton Dill, “Race, Class, and Gender: Prospects for an All-Inclusive Sisterhood,” Feminist Studies 9 (Spring 1983): 146.

My thinking on the topics of this essay has been deeply affected, over the years, by dialogues in my study group in Ann Arbor on feminist criticism and theory, and I would like to thank the past and present members of that group. I am grateful to Peg Lourie, Paula Rabinowitz, Alice Fulton, Julie Ellison, and especially to Anne Herrmann, for their contributions to this article.

Diana Fuss (essay date winter 1989)

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SOURCE: Fuss, Diana. “Getting into History.” Arizona Quarterly 45, no. 4 (winter 1989): 95-108.

[In the following essay, Fuss discusses Sexual/Textual Politics in terms of recent feminist approaches to historicism that emphasize histories of feminism instead of feminist theories of history.]

The problem may be not how to get into history, but how to get out of it.

—Hayden White, “Getting Out of History”

While historians like Hayden White have busily been trying to get out of history, feminist literary critics have been just as energetically trying to get into it.1 Since women as historical subjects are rarely included in “History” to begin with, the strong feminist interest in forging a new historicity that moves across and against “his story” is not surprising. What is more surprising perhaps is the particular form these new feminist approaches to historicism are taking: feminism enacts its engagement with history through a fetishistic fascination with its own historical roots both as a theory and as a practice. But this may be precisely the problem: histories of feminist theory have come to stand in for more rigorous feminist theories of history. Feminism's vexed relation to historicism is not so much alleviated as exacerbated by these recent attempts to deal with the category of history by tracing feminism's own genealogical roots. The exercise is not a pointless one (far from it); it is simply insufficient to answer the still serious charges of “ahistoricism” that seem to plague feminist theorists at every turn, even and especially those self-professed materialist literary critics who have made the most impassioned and most persuasive pleas for a historicist feminism.

Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (1985) is arguably the first systematic investigation of feminist literary criticism's theoretical presuppositions, and it has already received the serious and sustained attention such innovative critical work deserves.2 My interest in this early survey is motivated less by the book's central discussion of French “theoreticism” versus American “empiricism” and more by Moi's own somewhat oblique endorsement of literary “historicism.” Sexual/Textual Politics offers materialist historicism as a corrective and a counterbalance to a metaphysical essentialism which Moi believes compromises, and ultimately depoliticizes, the work of many of America's best known and most widely read feminist literary critics (Elaine Showalter, Annette Kolodny, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar). This lucidly written and eminently readable book makes some valuable points on the subject of feminism's relation to historicism, not the least among them the useful distinction between “the historical” and “historicism.” Luce Irigaray's Speculum de l'autre femme, for example, follows a certain historical continuum (an inverse trajectory from Freud to Plato) but stops short of practicing a more radical historicism by persistently refusing to engage with the particular modalities of patriarchal logic and the changing specificities of phallocentric economies that would prevent any simple conflation of classical and contemporary discourses. It is not that a text like Irigaray's Speculum is unhistorical, Moi believes; it is simply that this kind of work “signally fails to study the historically changing impact of patriarchal discourses on women” (148). Moreover, history without historicism precludes the recognition that “all forms of radical thought inevitably remain mortgaged to the very historical categories they seek to transcend” (88). A more ambitious understanding of historiography is needed in order to resist the steady pull toward a sedimentation of women into Woman, an understanding that can only be secured through a more direct interfacing with materialist thought. It is difficult not to wonder, along with Moi, why feminist literary critics have been reluctant to take up the work of materialist theorists (Moi names Gramsci, Benjamin, and Adorno, to which I would add Althusser, White, Jameson, Hindess, and Hirst)—a resistance all the more curious in light of the careful, usually rigorous, and often exhaustive attention paid to their psychoanalytic and deconstructionist colleagues (Derrida, Freud, Lacan).

But Moi's compact and precise argument against essentialism and for historicism is not, in fact, free of the very pitfalls she detects in the “patriarchal humanism” of Anglo-American critics. Moi uncovers traces of essentialist thinking in every Anglo-American feminist critic she addresses, wedding the category irreducibly to a certain nationalist identity and coming dangerously close in the process to positing a naturalized relation between them. However, my claim is not simply that Moi, an anti-essentialist materialist, is herself co-implicated in the terms of her dismissal of Anglo-American criticism, but that it is precisely her anti-essentialism that blocks her materialism. We see the way in which this strategic interference operates most clearly in Moi's anti-essentialist designation of nationalities as positions any subject can fill: “the terms ‘Anglo-American’ and ‘French’ must not be taken to represent purely national demarcations: they do not signal the critic's birthplace but the intellectual tradition within which they work” (xiv). By such a logic, any critic who indulges in a form of patriarchal humanism or metaphysical essentialism merits the designation “Anglo-American,” no matter what that critic's self-proclaimed national affiliations and sympathies. (Thus, to whatever degree Irigaray indulges in ahistoricism and idealism, she is Anglo-American rather than French.) But the essentialism Moi attempts to displace is not so much soundly routed as slyly rerouted. In fact, essentialism merely works its logic elsewhere: Moi's claim is not that to be an Anglo-American is to be, necessarily, an essentialist; rather her claim is that to be an essentialist is to be, ipso facto, an Anglo-American. Such a gesture dehistoricizes the speaking subject, removes the diverse works of Anglo-American critics from the precise sociopolitical frames which produced them and which may have overdetermined the essentialism for which they are currently faulted. This is certainly not to say that only an essentialist can successfully practice a materialist criticism; on the contrary, it is merely to suggest that an effective anti-essentialist materialism must be open to investigating why a subject might deploy certain essentialist gestures at a particular historical moment and for what ends; in other words, the anti-essentialist materialist must entertain the more difficult question of why, when, and where essentialism might be historically necessitated and politically interventionary.

Janet Todd's Feminist Literary History (1988) enters the debate at this juncture, seeking both to place “Anglo-American” feminist criticism in historical perspective and to argue for its continued efficacy at a historical moment when History itself is said to be “in crisis.” Todd's central strategy for revalidating American feminist criticism is to historicize socio-historicism—an important and timely project in my mind. But although I find myself fundamentally in sympathy with Todd's stated goal—to arrive at a more measured and less hasty assessment of the strengths and limitations of feminist literary history—I nonetheless find the book profoundly unsettling, not least because of Todd's own rather generalizing and, regrettably, rather hasty statements about feminist poststructuralism. My critical affinities for the very forms of poststructuralism Todd readily denounces (Lacanian psychoanalysis and Derridean deconstruction) doubtless make me overly sensitive to the terms of abuse levelled against them in this book. But it seems equally clear to me that the book's repression of repression, its desire not to desire, and its pervasive paranoia in the face of a bogey called “theory” ultimately sabotage Todd's own well-intentioned efforts to make a case for the theoretical sophistication and critical urgency of feminist literary history.

The book's repudiation of psychoanalysis begins early with the author's confession that her reassessment of the “foremothers” of feminist criticism (the socio-historical critics) is indeed motivated by “filial piety” for figures such as Elaine Showalter, but that she still remains unconvinced that “we must be oedipal” (2). I would contend that the real “foremother” of Feminist Literary History, the figure who provokes the greatest degree of oedipal anxiety on Todd's part (all the more manifest in the acute desire to deny oedipality) is not Elaine Showalter but Toril Moi. Though ostensibly a defense of Anglo-American feminist critics, and a counter-attack on Moi's spirited analysis of socio-historicism's complicities with patriarchal humanism, Todd's book uncannily rehearses many of the same arguments against these writers that Moi elaborates in Sexual/Textual Politics. By bracketing psychoanalysis and questions of oedipality so completely, Todd misses the opportunity to interrogate her transference not onto Showalter but onto Moi and so replicates many of the same difficulties which weaken the Moi book.

Moi's Feminist Literary Theory (the frequently overlooked subtitle of Sexual/Textual Politics) becomes Feminist Literary History in Todd's revisionary textual politics. Indeed, “History” erases “Theory” in a critical substitution which accurately summarizes Todd's central argument: we must turn away from ahistoricizing poststructuralist theories of Woman as a theoretical operation and turn towards more historically specific and empirically grounded analyses of “actual” women engaged in the material practice of writing. But if Moi's repeated accusations of essentialism against Anglo-American feminism ultimately succeed only in further reifying an already hypostatized category, counter-invocations of ahistoricism are similarly suspect when used indiscriminately, in a paradoxically dehistoricized way. The charge of ahistoricism is itself all too often ahistorically wielded; the difference between the critique and the terms or conditions of its deployment is sometimes no difference at all. Essentialism fails to deliver as an irrefutable term of disapprobation in Sexual/Textual Politics because it is predicated on the contradictory assumption that essentialism is, in essence, reactionary and wholly indissociable from another category, patriarchy, whose essentialist status goes completely uninterrogated in Moi's work. Ahistoricism fails in the same way to operate as a persuasive method of critical dismissal in Feminist Literary History because the sign “history” itself is scarcely historicized and curiously depoliticized. History emerges in Todd's analysis as a reliable, stable, homogeneous monolith, invested with immense critical weight and almost mythical restorative powers. What is missing from both Moi's and Todd's analyses is a rigorous theory of history. While Moi needs to historicize “essence,” Todd needs to de-essentialize “history.” Neither writer's project, as it stands, seems entirely adequate.

Both Moi and Todd purport to be materialists, which is puzzling, given their failure to engage in any sustained way with poststructuralist materialism. The problem is particularly acute in Todd's book where poststructuralism becomes identified with psychoanalysis and deconstruction, but not materialism. “History” is opposed to “Theory” in Todd's thinking, a questionable move that leads to several untenable conclusions: materialism is untheoretical; theory does not include practice; history is the proper antidote for theory. Relegating poststructuralism to the fields of psychoanalysis and deconstruction permits Todd to ignore a whole tradition of Marxist French feminist thought, including the work of committed materialists like Monique Wittig, Monique Plaza, Christine Delphy, and Catherine Clément. To admit these neglected writers into her pantheon of poststructuralists would certainly disarrange the binary symmetry of the French poststructuralist/American socio-historicist dichotomy that Todd borrows uncritically from Moi. One suspects that these writers are passed over because their inclusion would challenge Todd's central claim that the “French feminists” (a far more heterogeneous group than either Todd or Moi are willing to acknowledge) collectively ignore history, abjure politics, and replace real, material women with the metaphysical sign Woman.

Within the field of lesbian feminism, the French materialists (Wittig, Plaza, Delphy, Clément) are at least as well known as their psychoanalytic counterparts (Irigaray, Cixous, Kristeva). But lesbian feminism, along with minority women's criticism, is a subject both Moi and Todd prefer not to discuss at any great length. In fact, both self-consciously and apologetically exclude discussions of black and lesbian critics, preferring to focus instead on more “theoretical” (Moi) or more “mainline” (Todd) feminists. Since the omission of black and lesbian criticism is a particularly serious problem in both books, the authors' respective reasons for jettisoning these important subjects are worth investigating a little more closely. Moi's justification appears halfway through the book, at the critical transition point from “Anglo-American Feminist Criticism” to “French Feminist Theory”:

Some feminists might wonder why I have said nothing about black or lesbian (or black-lesbian) feminist criticism in America in this survey. The answer is simple: this book purports to deal with the theoretical aspects of feminist criticism. So far, lesbian and/or black feminist criticism have presented exactly the same methodological and theoretical problems as the rest of Anglo-American feminist criticism.


I think Moi needs to demonstrate the primary assumption here that “it is the contents of her work that make the lesbian critic's study different, not her method” (86). Do lesbian or black critics really have nothing to offer “methodologically” or “theoretically” to the larger body of feminist criticism Moi discusses? Is the body of Anglo-American feminist criticism really as monolithic in terms of method as Moi seems to suggest? Moreover, even if we agree that marginal feminisms “have presented exactly the same methodological and theoretical problems as the rest of Anglo-American feminist criticism,” then, all things being equal, why doesn't Moi consider any of them? The disregard of entire schools of feminist thought in a book which purports to be a general survey and critical introduction to feminist theory, and which attempts to expose and to investigate the politics of textual criticism, is a curious oversight indeed, and it highlights the need for work which will begin to investigate the way in which poststructuralism can be entirely complicit with the hegemony it purportedly seeks to undermine.

Todd's explanation for the relative absence of black and lesbian criticism (she does in fact refer, albeit briefly, to Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, and Catharine Stimpson) in her otherwise wide-ranging survey is similarly ingenuous, although unlike Moi she does take pains to confer the requisite token praise on that which she nonetheless feels compelled to elide:

I will start with the early days in the 1970s, often concentrating on Elaine Showalter who, as a supremely reactive writer, I will use as representative of the various changes and modifications in this criticism. By doing so I am aware that I am omitting many other lines of development, especially those of black and lesbian critics whose work is at the moment among the richest and most provocative in the socio-historical mode, but which in the early years tended to exist in the space provided by the more popular mainline critics. For my account I will inevitably have to distort history to some extent.


Exactly whose work existed in whose space here? And why is it presumed that there was (and is?) only one “space”? At what cost does Todd selectively target Showalter as her “representative” socio-historical critic, and what does this choice suggest about feminist literary history's pretenses towards diversity and difference? Considerably later in the book, Todd singles out lesbian and black contributions to feminist literary history as a promising future possibility: “Much is probably going to come from groups of women who identify themselves as feminist and something else, like black or lesbian, either as critics or creative writers” (94). If the archival enterprise of unearthing lost women writers is what Todd values most in socio-historical criticism, it is surprising that she is unaware of the substantial contribution lesbian and black writers and critics have already made to feminist literary history. The deployment of the speculative future tense here (“Much is probably going to come …”) is alarming. At the very least I think we can say that if the confrontation between “Anglo-American criticism” and “French feminist theory” can be accurately metaphorized, in Todd's approving analogy, as “an exciting spectator sport” (6), then perhaps we need to ask a little more responsibly who is really relegated to the sidelines. And we need to explore how the rules of the game can be redefined to transform a match of trans-Atlantic critical doubles into a more lively and integrated international team sport.

Let me return for a moment to Feminist Literary History's central theory/history opposition and its concurrent repudiation of psychoanalysis—the twin poles of Todd's central argument. Todd views psychoanalysis as a “timeless model” that mystifies history: “women are, after all, in history as material entities” (84). This approach is explicitly anti-semiotic: Todd assumes that any investigation of the sign Woman necessarily ignores the history of women; that theories of representation de-materialize their subjects; and that theory, not history, is guilty of the sin of reification and essentialism. Of course, poststructuralist theories of representation can scarcely be said to ignore history, and further, emphasizing the social and psychical construction of the subject in no way denies the existence of real, material women. Indeed, the materiality of discourse is a constant theme amongst French materialist thinkers. As Monique Wittig repeatedly reminds us in her work: “there is nothing abstract about the power that sciences and theories have, to act materially and actually upon our bodies and our minds, even if the discourse that produces it is abstract” (106). That women are social subjects, and not just linguistic signs, is a far less controversial claim than Todd makes it out to be. And one could even say that Todd is also far more of a semiotician than she herself seems to know. It is necessary to cite the full sentence from which the assertion of women's materiality is taken in order to appreciate a certain irony in her denunciations of semiotics:

Women are, after all, in history as material entities; they are more than mothers, and they form a kind of non-identical paradigm of the historical process itself.


A decoding of women as “paradigms” of the historical process is nothing if not semiotic.

Feminist Literary History is a study of one critic's failed attempts to exorcise the demon within, the demon called “theory.” Todd is adamant in her rejection of the symptomatic readings practiced by psychoanalytic critics—readings which in her opinion focus more on what is not said than on what is. She herself endorses “ideologically aware” readings (following the French structuralist Louis Althusser) and cautions against a welding of ideology and psychoanalysis since such a union “may use the message of the absences and silences to obscure the message of what is present, may in other words privilege the presumed deep structure at the expense of the historical surface” (86). One might legitimately question why history is presumed to lie on the surface of the text. (The entire import of Althusser's revision of Marx is to suggest quite otherwise.) Such a claim can only be foregrounded by burying Althusser's rather considerable debt to Lacan, ignoring his symptomatic readings of Marx, and suspending his theorization of history as a displaced series of ruptured discontinuities rather than a smooth surface continuum. Todd advocates practicing ideological hermeneutics in place of Freudian readings, but interestingly her ideological hermeneutics, so far as I can tell, is simply a symptomatic reading in materialist clothing: “Criticism using the notion of ideology focuses both on what is stressed as intentional and on what appears subliminal, discordant and unintentional” (86). If it is true that what is repressed in Todd's analysis is repression, then what we have here is the literal return of the repressed.

Part of Todd's strategy for legitimizing socio-historicism is to historicize psychoanalysis (a valid and ambitious undertaking), but she does not, in fact, historicize psychoanalysis so much as simply provide reasons for putting it on hold until the necessary empirical work on “the texts themselves” has been completed. One of the book's main cautions addressed to literary critics is a warning not to succumb to the temptation to “prematurely psychoanalyze” (98). A stage model for the practice of feminist literary criticism is implicitly prescribed: the feminist critic should begin with archival and empirical work (which would include the study of genre, the historical placement of writers, and the recovery of lost women authors) and only then proceed to activate, on an optional basis, other possible critical discourses—psychoanalysis and deconstruction, for example. In other words, gynocritics first, gynesis second—gynocritics occupying the privileged space of feminist criticism's primary “base” and gynesis inhabiting the secondary position of “occasional commentary, a critique, not a complement” (138).3 The idea that “theory” might be integral to the literary critical enterprise from its very inception, that gynesis is thoroughly co-implicated with gynocritics, is an idea strangely anathema to Todd.

In the end Todd's stage model works to privilege the particular kind of feminist criticism she herself practices so well: empirical, generic, archival, socio-historical criticism. Such work is useful and important but not necessarily the only point of legitimate departure for all feminist investigations. I am sympathetic to Todd's oft-repeated complaint that much socio-historical criticism privileges the Victorian and Modern periods and ignores eighteenth-century women writers altogether. But I also remain unconvinced that the way to compensate for this critical oversight in feminist criticism is to follow the lead of eighteenth-century women writers themselves and become “political and ethical historians” (116). My resistance to the program of politico-ethical criticism Todd supports is motivated not by any skepticism over the importance of history for our critical readings (Todd is surely right to insist that feminist inquiry in general can benefit from more rigorous acts of historicization), but by a fundamental disagreement over the meaning of history elaborated in the book. Too often the challenge to historicize is reduced to its most simplistic empirical foundations: a mere call to provide dates and places, to accumulate more data. “More is better” in this line of thinking. Thus, adding eighteenth-century women writers to The Madwoman in the Attic is Todd's corrective to Gilbert and Gubar's already massive book, but would expanding to encompass another century really solve all the problems of socio-historical criticism? While historicizing feminist literary history is a laudable goal, Todd's recommendations tend to be rather short on specifics. In attempting to demonstrate that theory de-historicizes, Todd neglects to give us a full accounting of her own theory of history. Dichotomizing theory and history is an obfuscating tactic at best, and the book suffers immeasurably because of it. I can't help but wonder in the end if the socio-historical critics Todd seeks to defend might better be served in some other way—perhaps by a more detailed accounting of the various theories of histories they construct and by a less defensive stance on the uses and abuses of something only vaguely defined as “theory.”

While literary critical histories of theory often fail to account for their own theories of history, theoretical investigations of history often fail to acknowledge their own literariness or, more properly, their own textuality (see Jameson). Happily, such is not the case with Denise Riley's “Am I That Name?” Feminism and the Category of ‘Women’ in History (1988), one of the most recent (and, in my mind, most successful) attempts to come to terms with the tricky category of history, this time by pursuing in archaeological fashion the precise textualizations and contextualizations of the social production of “women.” Riley's book is an especially valuable contribution to the ongoing discussions of women's place in history because it advances the argument beyond the question “Does history have a sex?” (Does “his story” ever include “her story”?) to the less obvious but currently more pressing question, “Does a sex have a history?” Riley, a philosopher of women's social history, investigates how sexual categorizations are discursively produced and culturally mobilized. Her strategy is to uncover the regime of codes that consolidate gendered categories, insisting on the “tactical” need to retain “women” as a political category while simultaneously recognizing that as a social category “women” is “eternally compromised,” always fractured and overwritten by a multitude of other cultural categorizations. Indeed the historical instability of the sign “women” is tenured as the very precondition of feminism; to those who see the deconstruction of gender as a threat to feminist politics, Riley offers the possibility that the very ambiguity of “women” constitutes the grounds of feminism's radical impossibility.

For Riley it is not enough simply to insert “women” into “history”; we need to simultaneously historicize “women” as a socially constructed category. And one cannot, of course, elaborate a history of the category of “women” without also examining the production of other intricated categories like race, ethnicity, class, sexual preference, nationality, and so on. Riley's terminology is seductive. Terms like “temporalities,” “periodicities,” “arrangements,” “alignments,” “consolidations,” “classifications,” “proximities,” and “fluctuations” carry more than just metaphorical weight; they point to Riley's own critical affiliation with the early Foucauldian practice of historical archaeology. For Foucault, “history” is layered rather than linear, sedimented rather than sequential. Identities are historically massified and produced through a process of cultural accretions—a perpetual semiosis. Thus Riley's heavy reliance on geological tropes to advance her main argument is not accidental; “sedimentations,” “petrifications,” and “massifications” all suggest that it is the job of the feminist historian to excavate the shifting layers of the collectivity we call “women” to uncover the stages and processes which have produced its current consolidations.

The naturalism of the geological metaphor suggests that essentialism may be at play even in an archaeological practice of historicization, although Riley is careful to point out that there is no essential bedrock beneath the layers of historical massifications, that “there is no deep natural collectivity of women's bodies which precedes some subsequent arrangement of them through history or biopolitics” (106).4 Even so, it is entirely possible to argue here that historicism works not against essentialism (as often argued)5 but through it—or rather, simultaneously against and through the logic it seeks to displace, as I have attempted to demonstrate in my earlier readings of Sexual/Textual Politics and Feminist Literary History. What distinguishes Riley's approach to the problem of “Woman versus women” from Moi's or Todd's approaches to this same issue is the historian's recognition that “women” no less than “Woman” can be an essentialist category: “below the newly pluralized surfaces, the old problems still linger” (99). Riley does not seek to purify feminism of essentialism so much as to confront this disreputable category (itself a historically variable construct) as the constitutive difference of feminism. “Women” under erasure becomes the “sine qua non” of feminism (2).

One way to de-essentialize essentialism, then, is to historicize the sign “essence.” But first we need a theory of history which is unafraid to engage with the terms of its own historical (im)possibilities and which therefore resists the pull back into a timid periodization. To get back into history, what we need is not a master-narrative of History but a narrative that can master “His story” while still avoiding the temptation to turn “Feminism” into a new hegemony. As I read through the current histories of feminist theory, I am reminded again of a line from the cultural historian Hayden White: “If one is going to ‘go to history,’ one had better have an address in mind” (11). It is not, perhaps, that feminist literary critics need a specific address in mind, a sure point of destination for our critical (ad)ventures, but it may just be that the old maps are insufficient to take us to where we want to go. Perhaps it is time to begin designing new maps of our own: a feminist cartography that will make possible a more radical historiography.


  1. This essay will consider three recent examples: Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory; Janet Todd, Feminist Literary History; Denise Riley, “Am I That Name?” Feminism and the Category of ‘Women’ in History.

  2. Both Hester Eisenstein (1983) and Josephine Donovan (1985) published critical overviews of feminist theory shortly before Moi's book appeared, but both limit their attention predominantly to the terrain of American feminist thought while simultaneously encompassing theory not relegated to the field of literature. Closer in methodology and purpose to Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics is K. K. Ruthven's Feminist Literary Studies: An Introduction (1984). For two particularly incisive critiques of Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics, see Schor and Smith.

  3. Elaine Showalter defines gynocritics as “the study of women as writers” which locates the “difference” of women's writing in the formalist properties of the text—in the “history, styles, themes, genres, and structures of writing by women” (14-15). Alice Jardine's gynesis signifies an operation, a procedure, a process which involves “the putting into discourse of ‘woman’” (25)—a radical strategy of reading and writing that poses an internal challenge to phallocratic discourse and marks the very limit of theoretical possibility.

  4. Foucault himself persistently disassociates “archaeology” from “geology” precisely to undermine any notion of historicization as a search for lost beginnings; Riley's pervasive use of metaphors from the physical sciences tends occasionally to confuse this important distinction and to work against her stated assumption that there is no “rock bottom” or historical foundation beneath the cultural layerings.

  5. See, for example, Smith and Nelson.

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. For Marx. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: Verso, 1969.

Donovan, Josephine. Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions of American Feminism. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985.

Eisenstein, Hester. Contemporary Feminist Thought. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge & the Discourse on Language. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum de l'autre femme (1974). Trans. Gillian C. Gill as Speculum of the Other Woman. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Jameson, Frederic. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Jardine, Alice. Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. New York and London: Methuen, 1985.

Nelson, Cary. “Men, Feminism: The Materiality of Discourse.” In Men in Feminism. Ed. Alice Jardine and Paul Smith. New York and London: Methuen, 1987.

Riley, Denise. “Am I That Name?” Feminism and the Category of ‘Women’ in History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Riley, Denise. “Am I That Name?” Feminism and the Category of ‘Women’ in History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Ruthven, K. K. Feminist Literary Studies: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Schor, Naomi. “Introducing Feminism.” Paragraph 8 (Oxford University Press, 1986): 94-101.

Showalter, Elaine. “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness.” In Writing and Sexual Difference. Ed. Elizabeth Abel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Smith, Paul. Discerning the Subject. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Todd, Janet. Feminist Literary History. New York: Routledge, 1988.

White, Hayden. “Getting Out of History.” Diacritics 12.3 (Fall 1982): 2-13.

Wittig, Monique. “The Straight Mind.” Feminist Issues 1.1 (Summer 1980): 103-11.

Elizabeth Fallaize (review date January 1991)

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SOURCE: Fallaize, Elizabeth. Review of Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir, by Toril Moi. French Studies 45, no. 1 (January 1991): 102-03.

[In the following review, Fallaize outlines the themes of Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir.]

This volume [Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir] has a rather curious format, drawing together an overview of Toril Moi's well-known work on feminist literary theory by Michael Payne, an interview with Moi by Laura Payne, and two new essays by Moi on Simone de Beauvoir. In the second of her essays Moi addresses the question of why it is that readers of ‘La Femme rompue’ frequently refuse to read the story in the way that Beauvoir intended. Moi offers a series of brilliant analyses, converging on her central proposition that to share Beauvoir's position is to share her investment in epistemological control, and to condemn the narrator as incapable of generating stable versions of events. The reader resistant to authorial strategies, on the other hand, takes up the role of reader—victim, identifying with the narrator and accusing society and the husband of refusing the woman access to knowledge. However, Moi opens up a third position, that of the reader—analyst, who, accepting the treacherous nature of all knowledge, perceives both the blind intensity of the author's negative transference on to her character and the textual effects working against her own intentions. The seduction of this position, persuasively deconstructive of the bind into which the story often forces the reader, is undeniable, and it is tempting to retain it when considering this volume as a whole. As reader—analyst, we note another curious transference operating between the first essay, in which Moi explores the hostile trend in the reception of Beauvoir's work, and the pieces by Payne in which they continually return to the question of hostile responses to Moi's own work. Liberal critics, explains Moi, are often upset by Beauvoir's explicitly political and conflictual world-view. Moi, writes Michael Payne, has a ‘politically confrontational view of feminism’, while Laura Payne is eager to discuss ‘hostile responses’ to Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics. Understandably reluctant to take on this particular Beauvoirian mantle, Moi eventually steers the interview firmly away into a discussion of how feminists in the 1980s can position themselves in relation to Kristeva's notion of the three stages of women's time, and into an indication of the current direction of her work on Beauvoir. What interests Moi in particular is the problem of the intellectual woman's speaking position—a problem of which Moi appears to be gaining some experience. However, these essays on Beauvoir show that Moi is unlikely to abandon her willingness to enter into vigorous debate, and, in their powerful deployment of critical strategies adapted to feminist purposes, provide further evidence that Moi is working in the vanguard of feminist criticism and is clearly more than equal to her task of re-establishing Beauvoir as ‘the most important feminist intellectual of the twentieth century’.

Deborah Cameron (essay date fall 1993)

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SOURCE: Cameron, Deborah. “Is There an Anglo-American Feminist Linguistics?” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 12, no. 2 (fall 1993): 223-27.

[In the following essay, Cameron contrasts different feminist theories of language in terms of Moi's linguistic analysis in Sexual/Textual Politics.]

Since I am a linguist rather than a literary critic, I want to consider the term “Anglo-American” in terms of its application to feminist theories of language: theories that arguably hold a central place in the more general project of feminist criticism. So, is there an Anglo-American feminist linguistics?1

Toril Moi, of course, implies that there is. She uses the phrase as part of a section heading in chapter eight of Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (1985), explicitly contrasting what she calls the Anglo-American empirical approach to language with the Lacanian approach as reworked by Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva.2 She does not consider whether there is a further contrast between the Anglo and the American: in Saussurean terms she treats these as allophones of a single phoneme (and, one might add, the unmarked form of this phoneme is American, not British).3

Theories of language are different from phonemes. They are neither arbitrary nor devoid of substantive content. So it is neither senseless nor vulgar to inquire how they might be influenced by the traditions of the particular cultures in which they arise. Certain generalizations may indeed be pertinent here: for example, the fact that most British and American intellectuals draw their everyday assumptions about meaning and language from the traditions of analytic philosophy and speech act theory, whether consciously or not, rather than from “continental” philosophy; or—an institutional fact—that linguistics in America has its face turned more to the social sciences, being historically sister of anthropology rather than daughter of philology.

But foregrounding divergences based on differences of nationality may cause us to overlook other, equally important differences. For instance, some intellectual disagreements are not culture-related so much as field-related. As a matter of habit, training, and expediency, the literary critic and the linguist tend to view language differently. This holds true both within and across cultures.

Other disagreements, though, are fundamentally political ones. If I disagree with someone about what the project of feminist politics should be, I am also likely to disagree with her on what is a helpful theoretical paradigm for feminist scholarship. And for a number of reasons, some of which will be taken up later in this paper, I believe that the direction of causality is from politics to theory, not the reverse. It is time we acknowledged this political dimension more explicitly, rather than concealing it behind “cultural” labels like “French,” “Anglo-American,” and so on. Those labels obscure the fact that feminism is a highly contested term for every society in which it exists.

The linguistic paradigms named by Moi as “Anglo-American” and “French” actually coexist in each of the nations mentioned by the labels, as well as elsewhere (in Germany, Scandinavia, Italy, and Japan, to name only a few places I have detailed evidence about). It would therefore be less misleading and less tendentious to rename Moi's paradigms, using the alternative terms “sociolinguistic” and “semiological.”

I suggest these terms for two main reasons. First, they capture the fundamental difference between the two currents: one regards language primarily as a form of social action while the other regards it primarily as a system of signification. One produces accounts of behavior while the other generates readings of texts. This leads me to a second difference: the sociolinguistic paradigm is favored more by social scientists who take human behavior as their object of study, and the semiological paradigm is favored more by students of literature and of other forms of cultural representation (e.g., film, visual arts) whose concerns are essentially textual. A third and connected difference is in the underlying epistemology of each paradigm. While I reject Moi's pejorative use of the term “empirical” (meaning untheorized) for the sociolinguistic approach, it is true that sociolinguistic, including feminist ones, continue to be more influenced than their semiologically minded colleagues by Enlightenment assumptions about knowledge, truth, reality, and subjectivity. The kind of debate and doubt that postmodernism has prompted in literary studies has not reached the linguistics department—yet.

For feminists, these two paradigms generate different sets of questions. A feminist sociolinguist is interested in describing and explaining the similarities and differences to be found in the verbal behavior of women and men. Differences are of interest because they are taken to reflect and reproduce unequal gender relations—differing experiences, opportunities, material linguistic resources. In these terms, Virginia Woolf's well-known analysis in “Women and Fiction” of why women writers mostly write novels is a sociolinguistic analysis.4

A feminist semiologist finds this kind of analysis not so much false as superficial. She wants to destabilize categories like “experience,” “men,” “women,” and to focus on the way such categories are constructed through practices of signification. Cora Kaplan has argued, for instance, that the peculiar difficulties of early women poets—difficulties a critic can read in their texts—stem from something deeper than gendered social expectations and restrictions.5 These exist, but they proceed from a more fundamental linguistic prohibition internalized in the process of acquiring feminine subjectivity. In other words, rather than taking the speaking subject as given and studying how he or she speaks, this paradigm takes language as given (“always already there”) and asks how language positions its speaking subjects.

Another way of thinking about the difference here is to ask the following question, which has also been posed by Elaine Showalter: are women marginal to language or are they marginalized by specific linguistic practices and behaviors?6 Is the question about difference, or is it about power?

These are political questions, and perhaps it is not surprising that adherents of the two paradigms often differ in their political allegiances. Both radical and liberal feminists, though in different ways, tend to favor the sociolinguistic approach to language.7 That approach does not problematize the very existence of women and men as the other does. As Moi says, it posits rational and unified subjects who can use language to know and act on their realities. Moi sees this as a phallocentric fiction; and yet she has also acknowledged that it can be an empowering fiction for women,8 whereas the project of fragmentation and destabilization implied by the alternative paradigm seems to carry a real danger of political quietism. (I think of the pessimism exemplified nowadays by Julia Kristeva and Juliet Mitchell, and I wonder if feminism can afford it.)

The enthusiasm of so many British and American feminists for “French” theory has been said to represent many things: a superficial fascination with one's cultural Other; a retreat into formalism; a fundamental change in English-speaking intellectual culture. I do not fully accept any of these arguments. I think it marks a period of questioning and conflict within feminism whose ultimate outcome we cannot yet know. As intellectuals we are grappling with the challenges of postmodernism; as feminists we are reevaluating the successes and failures of the last twenty years and searching for a new politics of heterogeneity and difference. Whichever side of the Channel or the Atlantic we speak from, we do not speak with a single voice. All the more reason to acknowledge our political disagreements and find ways of discussing them that clarify what is at stake.

In the search for this kind of productive conversation, we will of course need to pay attention to the real differences of political culture and history that exist between British and American feminist critics, and the very significant differences (acutely discussed by Cora Kaplan in this forum) both in the positioning of U.K. and U.S. feminists within the academy and in the professional norms that constrain academics in the two countries. Although I would argue that competing feminist approaches to language are not most usefully considered in terms of nationality, I would not want to deny the relevance of national differences altogether. At the level of our practice, and of our understanding of one another's practice, such differences are noticeable, and sometimes they are troublesome.

At the MLA panel where this debate on Anglo-American feminist criticism began, there were a couple of telling instances. For example, introducing the panel, Laura Doan recalled the surprise she felt when a British feminist academic wrote to her to question the inclusion of one man's work in a collection of feminist scholarship. To the American feminist the British woman's objection smacked of essentialism and connoted a degree of gender separatism that placed the writer at an extreme. I, by contrast, would not have interpreted it as extreme or necessarily indicative of essentialism. British feminism still preserves more “women only space” than its U.S. counterpart, and concern with this is not seen as the province of extremists. On the contrary, I remember being amazed when I discovered there were male students in the Women's Studies class I taught at the College of William and Mary and more than amazed to find a man teaching one of the other sections. In the British institutions where I have taught (which are not, incidentally, known as hotbeds of radicalism), this inclusion of men would have provoked riots.

There again, I was startled by the hostility some speakers at the MLA panel expressed toward Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics. What I had read as vigorous polemic, couched in a tone appropriate to the author's polemical intentions, seemed to be read quite differently by colleagues from across the Atlantic: as unsisterly condescension and bad history.9

In its original context, it seems to me that each of these apparent transgressions of feminist norms would have a different and less charged meaning because the position of the writer would be more accurately placed in the spectrum of culturally possible political positions. In order to understand fully what someone is doing or saying, you have to be aware of all the things she is choosing not to do and what each of them would mean. This is a severe test of cultural knowledge, and it is one mark of the “alien” to be constantly failing it.

Of course, it should not be concluded from this discussion that all positions adopted by feminists are immune to criticism from outside their own traditions, whether “tradition” is defined in terms of nationality, academic discipline, or politics. I am arguing only that criticism is likely to be both less acute and less readily accepted if it demonstrates serious misunderstandings of the context in which the target of the criticism is operating. We are more aware of the need to contextualize and relativize when we are dealing with theories made from perspectives more obviously “Other” and with texts that require actual translation. But even on what passes for familiar cultural and linguistic terrain, there is a need for caution.

This too is at least partly a question of language. However we theorize language-in-general, we must surely remain alert to the nuances of languages-in-particular. If my sojourn in the U.S. taught me nothing else, it taught me that there's no such language as “Anglo-American.”


  1. This paper was originally composed in 1989 when I was teaching at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. I thank Dale Bauer and Laura Doan for inviting me to participate in the MLA panel where it was first aired publicly; I also thank my U.S. colleagues, especially Meryl Altman and Colleen Kennedy, for their help over many months in sharpening my perception of what unites or divides British and American feminist critics.

  2. Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (London: Methuen, 1985).

  3. Witness the problem with my use of “Anglo” in this sentence: in the U.S. the most obvious reading of that term is as a marker of (WASP) ethnicity, and not as a marker of (non-U.S.) nationality.

  4. Virginia Woolf, “Women and Fiction,” in The Feminist Critique of Language, ed. Deborah Cameron (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 33-40. This essay originally appeared in The Forum, March 1929.

  5. Cora Kaplan, “Language and Gender,” in Sea Changes: Culture and Feminism (London: Verso, 1986), pp. 69-93.

  6. See Elaine Showalter, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” Critical Inquiry, 8, No. 2 (1981), 193.

  7. Another problem of translation here: my notion of what the term “radical feminist” means is grounded in the history of the British and not the U.S. women's movement. A more meaningful term for American readers is probably “cultural feminism,” but the two are not exact equivalents; the axes of contrast between different feminist tendencies are, to my mind, quite different in the two countries.

  8. Conversations with Moi; but this is also implied by the way Moi has read Simone de Beauvoir; see, for instance, her essay “Existentialism and Feminism,” Oxford Literary Review, 8, Nos. 1-2 (1986), 91.

  9. It is perhaps relevant to point out here that my seemingly greater tolerance for Moi's strong attacking strategy cannot be traced solely to the fact that her attack is directed mainly against American feminists; for although I am not American, I am a sociolinguist in the empirical tradition she excoriates, and thus I feel myself very much in her line of fire. Having participated in academic life on both sides of the Atlantic, I would provisionally explain my ideas about what is an acceptable level or kind of criticism with reference to differences in the norms of professional interaction to which British and U.S. academics are accustomed and indeed socialized, particularly in “traditional” institutions and fields of study.

Susan Stanford Friedman (essay date fall 1993)

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SOURCE: Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Relational Epistemology and the Question of Anglo-American Feminist Criticism.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 12, no. 2 (fall 1993): 247-61.

[In the following essay, Friedman analyzes the dialectical implications of the term “Anglo-American feminist criticism” in Sexual/Textual Politics, surveying the American feminist/academic milieu.]

Is there an Anglo-American feminist criticism? The question of this forum contains a host of other questions about the meaning of the question itself. What does “Anglo-American” mean in the context of feminist criticism? Does it imply a “school,” with a coherent system of ideas, common project, and related methodologies? Or does it more loosely suggest a confederation of “family resemblances” based in two cultures whose dominant language is English? Does the term imply a specific body of critics who identify themselves as “Anglo-American feminists”? Or is “Anglo-American” a term applied to certain feminist critics after the fact, as descriptor of what has unself-consciously evolved? Who uses the term? In what context and for what purpose? Since categories inevitably highlight some and mute others in the pool to be described, who and what are emphasized or suppressed in this name, “Anglo-American”? In the context of the politics of location, what is the relevance to the question of my status as a white, middle-class American feminist critic who received a B.A. in 1965 and a Ph.D. in 1973, began teaching at Brooklyn College, CUNY, in the heady days of Open Admissions, and then in 1975 joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the English Department and the Women's Studies Program?

Toril Moi may well have been the first to foreground the term in Sexual/Textual Politics (1985), a book whose dialectical project and organization establish “Anglo-American Feminist Criticism” (Part I) as the thesis, “French Feminist Theory” (Part II) as the antithesis, and Kristeva (Chapter 8) as the implied synthesis that moves beyond the inadequacies of the prior positions and occupies the endpoint of the text's teleological progression. Moi—the Norwegian theorist who worked for years in the British academic system and recently moved to the United States on the currents of Britain's Thatcher-induced brain drain—uses the term “Anglo-American” not as a participant, but as an observer, as the one outside the system who will articulate its theoretical paradigms and historical evolution.1

Moi's accuracy as summarizer and historian does not concern me here (both aspects of the book have been critiqued elsewhere). What interests me at the moment is how the term “Anglo-American” appears to have been born out of the necessity of dialectical contradiction and process—out of Moi's version of the agon between what she and many others have seen as a national and geographic schism in feminist criticism and theory. Most often, that split involves just two national paradigms: French and American feminist criticism. But Moi retains the binary at the same time that she introduces a third party, Britain. Three decidedly different cultures become two: French and Anglo-American. The Anglo in the Anglo-American is so severely elided in the book that Mary Ellmann's early Thinking about Women (1968) is made to stand for Anglo feminist criticism in general, a representation that is highly inadequate. “Anglo-American” comes into being in relation to “French” as a result, in other words, of the need to define an opposition in dialectical terms. Given Moi's condescension toward the (Anglo-)American and valorization of the French, her binary for feminist criticism reduces itself to “French” and “Not-French.” Borrowing from Irigaray, I might say that Moi sees only “one” where there are (many) more than “two.”2

This dialectical reductionism is rampant among critics who attempt to summarize the history and theory of feminist criticism. Distilling the complex history of feminist criticism into a narrative of two antagonists violates the historical specificities of feminist criticisms as they have developed in many parts of the world. Not only is “American” feminist criticism different from “French” and “Anglo” feminist criticisms, but the feminist criticisms in these three countries are not themselves monolithic—indeed, they are often bitterly divided. As a materialist feminist, Monique Wittig attacks the concepts of repressed femininity forged by Cixous and Irigaray. The Lacanian feminist slant of the British journal m/f is worlds apart from the feminist work in the New Left Review. The proliferation of methodologies and theories in American feminist criticism is dizzying (if not dazzling), where deep divisions among feminists often arise over issues of poststructuralist theory, race, religion, and sexuality. Feminist criticism in all three countries also regularly combines questions of gender with different critical methodologies—such as reader response, psychoanalysis, textual analysis, archival archaeology, deconstruction, new historicism, and cultural studies. Moreover, the narrative of “Anglo-American” and “French” feminist criticism in opposition erases the stories of vigorous feminist criticisms and literary movements that have developed in many other parts of the world: Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Nigeria, the Caribbean, South Africa, Sweden, and so forth.

As Deborah Cameron and Marilyn Butler both suggest in this forum, national “tags” for feminist criticisms become convenient geographical tropes for differences that are fundamentally theoretical, methodological, and political.3 The categories “Anglo-American” and “French” for feminist criticism not only obscure differences within each country, but also suggest national culture as the shaping force when politics, theoretical paradigms, methodologies, and disciplinary backgrounds might be just as or even more significant. The schism Moi, among others, identifies is more usefully understood as a split between poststructuralist and various other paradigms, representatives of which exist in Britain, France, and the United States. Not only do some American and British feminists use poststructuralist ideas originating in France, but many self-consciously weave poststructuralism with other theories and methodologies to construct a negotiated, hybridized criticism.4

This is not to say that the specific historical and cultural circumstances of production, dissemination, and consumption are irrelevant to the variations of feminisms. Any criticism contains within itself the story of its own production and use that is inseparable from its historical conditions. Pedagogically speaking, even national stereotypes can sometimes serve as a useful beginning for mapping feminist criticism in the United States, Britain, and France: the American interest in the self; the British emphasis on class; the French focus on sexuality and style. (Young British and American girls have been warned for centuries to beware the dangers and dissolution of “French novels” and “French kissing”; is the resistance to “French” feminism from some “Anglo-American” feminists a new strain of the puritanical and work-oriented Anglo response to “foreign” ideas?) But national identities, however convenient as tags or stereotypical beginnings, should not substitute for more precise and complex narratives of the production of theoretical, political, and methodological similarities and differences in specific places and times in the history of feminist criticism.

What these thoughts add up to so far is a deep suspicion of the category “Anglo-American feminist criticism.” Its creation and use are linked to the problematic narrative of the agon between “French” and “American” criticism, so patently inadequate and reductionistic as history. As it is used, it does not appear to signify a coherent and consistent theory or methodology; nor does it refer to a group of critics who identify themselves as “Anglo-American.” As Laura Doan notes in this forum, British and American feminists are frequently uninformed about each other's work. As a category, the definition of “Anglo-American feminist criticism” is imprecise. If it includes all those feminist critics practicing in the United States and Britain, then it has no theoretical coherence since the feminist criticisms in both countries are quite diverse. If it includes all those feminist critics who are not “French”—that is, poststructuralist—then the national tag is misleading since many American and British feminist critics are poststructuralist. The historical conditions of American and British academia are so different—as Marilyn Butler and Cora Kaplan have ably described in this forum—that the category appears seriously ahistorical. And given the absence of a direct and material coalition between American and British feminist critics, “Anglo-American feminist criticism” seems to be dead in the water as a useful category.

However, if we work with a relational notion of what a category is, “Anglo-American feminist criticism” may begin to take on some coherence. In the politics of definition, the usefulness of a category depends on the vantage point of its formation and use. Categories are potentially fluid sets rather than essences, sets that can be deployed differently depending upon the politics of location and positionality. For example, if we regard “white people” in relation to each other, then the term means little, obscuring the differences of class, gender, religion, sexuality, ethnicity, and so forth. But in relation to people of color in the United States, the category “white” has real, material meaning as racial privilege. Conversely, the term “women of color” in relation to African American, Asian American, Native American, or Chicana, is a category that threatens to obscure the very real differences among women of these cultures. But in relation to “white women,” the notion of “women of color” has a reality based in racial difference and potential coalition. In relation to each other, Asian Americans are Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Filipino Americans (and so forth); but in relation to African Americans and European Americans, they are Asian Americans. In relation to non-Indians, Leslie Marmon Silko and Paula Gunn Allen are Native Americans; in relation to Native Americans, they are members of the Laguna Pueblo; in relation to each other, they are individual women who characterize the Laguna Pueblo culture in startlingly different ways.

Rather than establishing “Anglo-American feminist criticism” as a fixed entity with a set definition, we can test its usefulness by thinking relationally. The category “Anglo-American” is not very useful for an examination of British and American feminists in relation to each other because the differences seem overwhelming. In relation to French feminist criticism, the term “Anglo-American” begins to take on some meaning, albeit an imprecise one because so many British and American feminists use French poststructuralist theory. But in relation to the “Third World” (itself a category useful only in a relational sense),5 the categories Anglo-American and Western gain viability because of the material and ideological differences in First and Third World intellectual arenas. This I took to be the great lesson of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's 1981 essay “French Feminism in an International Frame.”6 Within the West, in 1981 the schism in feminist criticism between the poststructuralists and the non-poststructuralists was in its early, most bitter phase. But in relation to the subaltern—the women Spivak invokes, such as the Sudanese women who undergo material, not textual, clitoridectomy and the washerwomen on her grandfather's estate in India—the division that was tearing apart Western feminist critics was greatly overshadowed by the commonality of their textual and academic projects. Similarity and difference are not fixed categories. Rather, they are relative to the position of the observer. The very point of Spivak's essay doubles back into a relational self-critique. In relation to Western feminists, Spivak is a Third World woman; in relation to the washerwomen on her grandfather's estate, Spivak is an upper caste and class woman trained and working in the First World. Within a fluid epistemology, all sets of relations must be suspended and held simultaneously as potentially useful in different situations.

Within the context of this relational epistemology, I find myself asking anew, is there an “Anglo-American feminist criticism”? If I try to keep in mind the vast differences in feminisms around the world, I notice some immediate “family resemblances”7 between British and American feminist criticisms that suggest important commonalities. First, Western culture—with its privilege and contradictory status for women—forms the primary arena in which we both work. Second, English is overwhelmingly our native language (with the exception of some native and immigrant feminists in the U.S. and some immigrant feminists in Britain). Given English's status as the lingua franca of the globe at this moment in history, this native language is an important privilege we share. Third, British literature still forms the core of the graduate curriculum for those with Ph.D.'s in English literature in both Britain and the United States, a foundation metonymically evident in the nearly universal requirement of a course in Shakespeare as part of the undergraduate English major. Obviously, many feminist critics in both countries work in non-English languages; and many, particularly in the States, specialize in American literature. But most feminist critics write and teach about literature written in English, a canon within which British literature is still the privileged field. (Like the formation of an American literary tradition in the nineteenth century, American literary criticism—including feminist criticism—exhibits many of the defensively independent, inevitably entangled, and deeply ambivalent patterns of postcoloniality.)

As a fourth basis for family resemblance, American and British feminists share Virginia Woolf, whose A Room of One's Own is arguably the single most important text in the formation of “Anglo-American” feminist criticism. No doubt, the Americans and the British have read Woolf differently: in the United States, Woolf was from the beginning widely revered and taught; in Britain, according to Jane Marcus,8 the Marxist imprint on feminist criticism often led to her dismissal as an elitist snob—so much so that her centennial went virtually unmarked in Britain, while it was widely celebrated with conferences and volumes in the United States. For American feminists, Woolf's materialist analysis of “genius” in A Room of One's Own justified their early resistance to the formalism of New Criticism and the reintroduction of historical, political, and biographical analysis into the study of texts. It provided as well the occasion for Alice Walker's famous 1974 extension of Woolf's class and gender analysis into the arena of race, in “In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens.”9 By the end of the 1970s, Woolf's formalist propositions about a materially based feminine aesthetic and an androgynous creativity had spawned vast numbers of gynocritical readings. (The irony of Moi's opening attack on American feminist criticism in Sexual/Textual Politics is that she assumed that Elaine Showalter's sharp critique of Woolf in A Literature of Their Own was characteristic of American feminist criticism in general, when in fact Showalter's attack shocked most American feminists by its vitriolic idiosyncracy.)10

A fifth commonality that suggests the viability of the category Anglo-American feminist criticism is that both British and American feminist critics experienced the influential waves of poststructuralist theory emanating from France in the mid- to late-1970s and gathering momentum in the 1980s. In the U.S., this changed the map of feminist criticism dramatically and threatened to dissolve the sense of a common feminist project that had loosely held together (not without conflict) the different types of feminist criticism and feminists during the 1970s. On the one hand, poststructuralist feminists—whose initial or primary fields were often French literature—found the problematizing of language and subjectivity exciting and richly suggestive for feminism because of its critique of phallo(go)centrism and the unitary (male) subject. In relation to their European masters (Derrida, Lacan, Barthes, Foucault, et al.), their non-poststructuralist colleagues seemed mired in naive, unsophisticated, and regressive essentialisms.

On the other hand, non-poststructuralist feminist critics continued to find challenges in the analysis of representations of gender and in the gynocritical task of recovering, reassessing, and forging a female literary tradition, interpreting women's texts in their historical, literary, and biographical contexts.11 Women of color confronted white women, and lesbian women challenged heterosexual feminists with the exclusions of their traditions, much as women in general had confronted men about the male canon. But in relation to poststructuralist feminists, they shared the task of deformation and reformation of a literary canon. In relation to a tenuously shared feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic political practice, their post-structuralist colleagues seemed mired in incomprehensible, elitist language that (re)marginalized women and fostered an ahistorical, utopian, and regressive essentialism that ignored differences among women and the political urgency of feminism.12

In the culture wars among feminist critics in the American academy of the early 1980s, the sense of a common feminist agenda seemed to be shattered. To non-poststructuralist feminists, poststructuralist feminists seemed to have more in common with their Lacanian or deconstructionist male colleagues than they did with other feminists. To poststructuralist feminists, non-poststructuralist feminists seemed resistant to new ideas and riddled with a traditional form of American anti-intellectualism. By the mid-1980s, however, poststructuralism had so pervaded the American academy that many American feminists became active negotiators between post-structuralist and non-poststructuralist paradigms and methodologies. The Americanization of French poststructuralist feminism accelerated to produce what I see as a vibrant and richly complex American feminist critical scene.13

From what Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler suggest in this forum, similar tensions and patterns have accompanied the introduction and Anglicanization of French poststructuralism into British feminism. Where the American tendency to insist on concepts of the self, identity, and agency reconfigured Derridian deconstruction, for example, into a strategy for reading the author's deconstruction of patriarchal binaries, the British focus on class and materialist analysis has led to the foregrounding of the Foucauldian and Althusserian poststructuralism evident in the work of critics such as Michèle Barrett, Catherine Belsey, Chris Weedon. Annette Kuhn, Griselda Pollock, and Rozika Parker.14 In both Britain and the United States, the influence of ideas from France has produced narratives of resistance, anxiety, excitement, conflict, adaptation, and appropriation. (In contrast, the influence of American and British feminists on the French poststructuralists seems relatively negligible or unacknowledged.)

In relation to feminist criticisms in other parts of the world—not only in France, but even more so in places like Hong Kong, New Delhi, or Lagos—the category “Anglo-American feminist criticism” becomes meaningful. Depending upon one's point of reference, the five continuities I have identified above can be supplemented by many more family resemblances. But in relation to each other, British and American feminist criticism reflect the specificities of their different locations. As Kaplan and Butler demonstrate in this issue, the conditions for the production and consumption of feminist criticism in Britain and the United States are significantly different and consequently inflect the work itself in important ways. They have briefly described aspects of the British academy, influenced as it has been by the British Marxist intelligentsia and Thatcherism; I would like to conclude with contrapuntal references to the conditions in the American academy—as I have experienced and observed them—that have marked American feminist criticism differently.

American feminist criticism emerged out of a period of social and political ferment rooted in a broadly based, grass-roots feminist movement, which in turn arose out of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and early 1970s (movements that were themselves rooted in a longstanding American reform tradition). Other social forces converged to make the snowballing spread of feminist ideas possible, but in many ways, the powerful, ethically compelling discourse of the Civil Rights movement has dominated the progressive movements of the past thirty years. Itself not monolithic, this complex discourse shattered the veneer of American self-satisfaction intensified by the victory in World War II and a decade of prosperity and unprecedented American world power. The discourse of Civil Rights (in spite of its internal contradictions represented by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X) insisted upon the categories of liberty, equality, justice, self-determination, and opportunity—the categories of liberal humanism that progressive intellectuals in France and Britain were rejecting, especially as they were embodied in existentialism. As they had done in the nineteenth century, emergent feminists began (once again) to apply the discourse of Civil Rights to women. The emphasis on liberty and selfhood in the recent wave of American feminism may owe as much to the centrality of race in American culture and the significance of the Civil Rights movement as it does to the middle-class origins of the contemporary movement. (One could argue that the British Empire makes race equally important in Britain, but perhaps the distance of the colonies allowed for a greater displacement of the issue and a concomitant emphasis on class.) The anti-war movement, combined as it was with the Free Speech and educational reform movements on campuses, intensified the drive to question authority and the status quo.

Feminism in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s was by no means limited to college and university campuses. But at least two factors contributed to making higher education a (not the) key site of feminist struggle. First, the political agitation of the 1960s had a strong generational component, with young people, congregated in large numbers on campuses, challenging the authority of their elders (the draft and the system of student deferments were key elements). Second, the United States has a tradition of mass higher education that goes back to the public land grant institutions established during the nineteenth century. After World War II, the percentage of Americans attending postsecondary schools went up and has continued to climb; postsecondary education has increasingly become a necessity for a minimal middle-class existence. The contrast with Britain is striking, where the more rigorous secondary schools, the specialized curriculum of higher education, and the dominance of an elite university system contributed to a much smaller proportional matriculation. (When I lived in Hong Kong in 1970, I was startled to see that none of the many upper middle-class British women I met had any postsecondary school education, a pattern that would have been inconceivable in the States.) The vast populations of American colleges and universities made the campus an inevitable site of transition and change for young adults and increasing numbers of returning women students.

Women's studies—of which feminist criticism is a part—developed widely on American campuses as the educational arm of the women's movement. However tenuous and vulnerable, women's studies programs and courses—interdisciplinary and discipline-based—proliferated rapidly, most often stronger and better funded at the less prestigious institutions. America's Oxbridge—the elite private institutions like Harvard—were (and to a great extent still are) highly resistant to women's studies; leadership consequently came often from feminists in public institutions. The history of my own university was not unusual.15 Pressured by a coalition of feminist faculty, lecturers, and students, the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents mandated the development of women's studies in 1973, which resulted in the founding of women's studies programs at Madison and many other of the UW system campuses. During this period, many feminist academics were also involved in community activism off campus. But as women's studies programs were established, feminists increasingly found that instituting women's studies in an academic setting with enough legitimacy to attract students and warrant majors, faculty, and budget meant putting one hundred percent of their energy into their campus activism. The political work of academic feminists became ever more firmly centered in the institutions they sought to change: in the classroom, in the research that both fed the classroom and offered the possibility of job security, and in the administration of institutions that had marginalized and exploited women.

Here the different demographics of American and British academics seem particularly relevant. The sheer number of universities, four- and two-year colleges, and community colleges (many of them expanding) meant that jobs were available, however hard they had to be fought for. In relation to established disciplines, women's studies is still vulnerable, underfunded, and understaffed—and on some campuses under constant threat of erasure. But in relation to women's studies in other countries, American academic feminists have gained a stronger foothold, a genuine material base of operations in the academy that has had a major impact on the curriculum—through separate programs, discipline-based courses, and mainstreaming. American feminists have had a degree of access to vast numbers of post-secondary students that has not been possible in other countries. Community activists have also been engaged in feminist education outside the classroom. But various factors in the educational system and society at large have made it possible for (overworked, exhausted, and courageous) teachers to materialize a feminist mission inside the academy.

To someone of my academic generation, this has meant that my main political work is inside the academy, not in the community, where it originally began. I do not feel the nostalgia that Cora Kaplan voices in this issue for the mixture of community and academic activism she experienced in Britain. As a community activist in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I often spoke to or with tiny groups of women who already agreed with me, unable to get an audience of the “unconverted”; I sat through endless meetings that led nowhere because of factionalization and leftist purism. I remember my shock when I stepped into my first women's studies lecture hall in 1975. I faced some 150 expectant women, most of them eager to hear what I had to say. Just for a moment, it felt like a rally. This sensation faded immediately because to be a successful teacher in the academy, I found that lectures cannot be rally speeches; teaching involves not exhorting, but challenging diverse people to question and think. For me, it means charting areas of new inquiry, not presenting students with a nugget of political truth. Within the academy, I learned to define my political work differently than I had in the community—not so much as advocacy for a specific cause as contributing to the deformation and reformation of knowledge and knowing. I don't long for the days when I futilely attempted to set up a women's health collective because I know that I have been much more effective in promoting societal change by working within the academy as an academic feminist. I see my efforts as complementary to those of many feminists outside the academy who have worked hard to institutionalize rape crisis centers, shelters for battered women, women's counseling centers, lesbian centers, and advocacy groups such as the Women's Equity League or the National Women's Political Caucus.

For myself and many feminists like me in the academy, the constant contradiction of our position is evident in our attempt to combine a radical analysis of culture with a reformist activism. Within this context, the split between “the political and the professional” that Kaplan found her American students lament contains for me both an element of unreality and a warning. The unreality resides in my experience of the split as an utterly false binary. Institutions of higher education in the United States are major socializing forces in American society. They are not ivory towers exempt from or irrelevant to the power relations of society at large (this was a major lesson of the anti-war movement). Consequently, to engage in the attempt to transform the academy is, for me, political work of material tangibility and importance. The warning, however, addresses a potential problem that always exists in tension with the commitment to change: that is, the slide into careerism. Success within the system one is trying to change inevitably contains the possibility of co-optation. Is the price of the institutionalization of American women's studies the loss of its political and moral direction, many ask? What, conversely, is the price of remaining outside the academic system? Leaving the educational institutions in the hands of traditionalists? I prefer to live and work within this contradiction, in a constant state of vigilance, where decisions about what I do, when, and for whom must be continually subject to scrutiny.

The success of American women's studies has also meant the development of generational differences and tension over these issues of the political and the academic. As I see it, two competing forces within academic feminism during the 1980s created a fascinating and richly productive crossfire. First, feminists of color pioneered in a major theoretical advance by insisting that gender cannot be isolated from other systems of oppression without reproducing racism, classism, and ethnocentrism. The emergence of “woman,” “women,” and “gender” as legitimate categories of inquiry in the American academy is a stupendous achievement whose difficult birth in the 1960s and early 1970s should not be minimized. But as an endpoint, these categories became inadequate. Women of color in the late 1970s and 1980s led the way in developing an integrated analysis of gender, race, class, sexual preference, ethnicity, and national origin. The moral and political discourse of the Civil Rights movement, so important to the rise of the second wave of American feminism, returned, intensified and newly configured, in the often angry, compelling analysis and intellectual activism of these women.16

At the same time that this discourse of race, class, and gender was reshaping the map of American academic feminism, poststructuralist feminism arrived from France to alter fundamentally the nature of theoretical feminist discourse. In the blend and clash with American feminist criticisms, particularly the experientially based and ethical/political criticism of women of color, French poststructuralism underwent a process of Americanization that accounts for some of the difference between British and American feminist criticisms.17

In the intersection of these two vital advances to feminist thinking in the 1980s, a whole generation of feminist students grew up in the academy under the tutelage of the feminist teachers who had fought to hire more women and establish women's studies in the 1970s. Unlike their teachers, many of these students had no activist experience at all, either inside or outside the academy. Particularly for many graduate students, the introduction to feminism was often intellectual. Instead of fighting to bring feminism into the academy as the earlier generation had done, many of the younger women had to struggle to bring feminism to their personal lives. Many believed that this was a “postfeminist” era, with feminism an (embarrassing) anachronism. The heady domain of poststructuralist theory proved particularly attractive for budding feminist critics, as a source of undeniable excitement, prestige, and career advancement. Poststructuralist theories of the non-referentiality of language, the undecidability of meaning, the impossibility of agency, the death of the author, the irrelevance of identity reinforced the tendency of the younger generation to engage in intellectual “play” with feminist ideas. In the inevitable tensions of intergenerational relations, the older feminist faculty often felt themselves pushed aside by the more theoretically sophisticated younger generation. The younger feminists in turn sometimes felt urged to a false “sisterhood,” infantilized, denied the space to grow and be different from, even surpass, the elder generation.18

Reaganism and the rise of the New Right was relatively slow to hit the academy, which had remained an enclave of steady, if conflicted and uneven, change in comparison to the rest of society. By the late 1980s, the civil rights of women and minorities were under severe attack, as were the progressive changes within the academy. Combined with the influence of women of color, this attack has dramatically changed the stance of young feminists in the academy. For some ten years, I seldom heard a peep from my students—especially graduate students—about “the political.” By the early 1990s a whole generation of feminist students awakened to the reality of reactionary change—the potential loss of such fundamental rights as abortion, the dismantling of affirmative action, the reinstitution of traditional curricula, the threat to women's studies.19 This is the context into which I would put the question that Kaplan, when newly returned from Britain, heard from her Rutgers students and reports in this issue: “How can I be political and professional?” My answer to my own students asking similar questions is not based on nostalgia for the American 1960s nor on longing for the British left experience. I see instead my undergraduate women's studies majors often responding to their teachers' academic/political activism in the classroom by volunteering at the shelter for battered women, organizing for Indian treaty rights, planning careers as feminist lawyers, doctors, social workers, and therapists. I try to communicate to my graduate students a sense of urgency about the political nature of all teaching. Professional work can be political/feminist work, especially if the temptation toward individualistic careerism can be resisted.

The purpose of this quick survey of the American feminist/academic scene has been to outline, in reference to other essays in this forum, some of the historically specific conditions that make American and British feminist criticism different (the precise nature of that difference belongs to a different essay). This narrative of difference raises the question once again of what meaning “Anglo-American feminist criticism” could possibly have. In answer, I return to the concept of a relational epistemology. Giving up the notion of a fixed identity for the category “Anglo-American feminist criticism” frees us to recognize the term in its multiple, flexible, permeable, and relational meanings that on the one hand can point to difference, on the other to continuity, depending upon the point of reference. And as Holly Laird writes, “no matter what its problems, ‘Anglo-American feminist criticism’ has become meaningful … because [among other reasons] critics have used the term over and over again—it means what has been said both for and against it and ‘lives’ because of what it has ‘done’ for various critics.”20


  1. Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (London: Methuen, 1985). The chapter on Kristeva concludes Part II on French criticism, but is the text's privileged theory. Moi's special affinity for Kristeva is evident in her identification of both Kristeva and herself as “strange women”: Kristeva as Bulgarian in France; herself as “a Norwegian teaching French literature in England” (pp. xiv, 150-51). However, I agree with Holly Laird (letter to author, 24 July 1992), who suggests that Moi's materialist critique of both Anglo-American and French feminist criticism represents another implied teleology in the text.

  2. In “This Sex Which Is Not One,” in This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 23-33, and Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), Luce Irigaray critiques phallogocentric theories of sexual difference as ideological constructions based on the presumption of a single sex.

  3. I refer in this paper to early versions of papers that Laura Doan sent me in our first correspondence about this forum: the 1989 MLA papers by Marilyn Butler, Deborah Cameron, and Cora Kaplan and a paper by Janet Todd submitted subsequent to MLA. While these papers have been revised and expanded since the 1989 MLA, they still address the issues that drew my attention in the earlier versions and to which I allude in this paper.

  4. See, for example, the historicized psychoanalytic criticism of Margaret Homans's Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); the deconstructive African-American gynocriticism of Valerie Smith's “Black Feminist Theory and the Representation of the ‘Other,’” in Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory and Writing by Black Women, ed. Cheryl A. Wall (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989), pp. 38-57; the materialist narratology of Rachel Blau DuPlessis's Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985); and the Bakhtinian gynocriticism of Mae Gwendolyn Henderson's “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer's Literary Tradition,” in Wall's Changing Our Own Words, pp. 16-37.

  5. See Chandra Talpade Mohanty's argument that “Third World women” represents not a constituency but rather an “imagined community,” in “Cartographies of Struggle: Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism,” in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, ed. Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), pp. 4-5. My formulation of relationality was drafted before I saw Mohanty's “relational” analysis of Third World women (see especially pp. 12-13); her use of the term emphasizes her call to see Third World women's struggles in relation to their other oppressions based on class, (post)colonialism, religion, national origin, etc.

  6. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “French Feminism in an International Frame,” in In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (London: Methuen, 1987), pp. 134-53.

  7. I am adapting Ludwig Wittgenstein's concept of “family resemblances,” his metaphor for categorical continuities, in Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958). My thanks to Eric Rothstein for introducing me to the term in relation to literary history and to Heather DuBrow for alerting me to Alastair Fowler's adaptation of the term in Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp. 40-44. What I mean by “family resemblances” is the tendency of some “traits” to (re)appear for cultural and historical reasons at the same time that individual differences remain important.

  8. Conversation with author.

  9. Alice Walker, “In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens,” in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), pp. 230-43.

  10. See Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics, pp. 2-8, where she associates Elaine Showalter's discomfort with Woolf's abandonment of realism with “Lukács' Stalinist views of the ‘reactionary’ nature of modernist writing” (p. 6); Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), pp. 263-97.

  11. I am dissatisfied with the categories of poststructuralist and non-poststructuralist feminist criticism because they imply a binary where a multiplicity of theory and practice exists. But I am even more dissatisfied with the common opposition between poststructuralist feminism and liberal humanist feminism (see Moi, for example) because this formulation almost always privileges poststructuralism as sophisticated and revolutionary in opposition to a naive and regressive humanism. Moreover, this binary (sometimes also termed poststructuralism vs. cultural feminism) erases the degree to which various non-poststructuralist feminisms also began in critique of a totalizing, androcentric humanism and remained tied to other kinds of radical tradition and analysis.

  12. For a sampling of texts authored or edited by American critics that variously narrate, debate, and/or perform the history of these interactions, see Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics; Alice A. Jardine, Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985); Showalter, ed., The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory (New York: Pantheon, 1985); Shari Benstock, ed., Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987); Spivak, In Other Worlds; Wall, ed., Changing Our Own Words; Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference (London: Routledge, 1989); Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller, eds., Conflicts in Feminism (New York: Routledge, 1990); and Jane Gallop, Around 1981: Academic Feminist Literary Theory (New York: Routledge, 1991).

  13. See, for example, the hybridized texts mentioned in note 4; Nancy K. Miller, Subject to Change: Reading Feminist Writing (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988); and my extended discussion of the Americanization of French poststructuralist theory in “Weavings: Intertextuality and the (Re)Birth of the Author,” in Influence and Intertextuality in Literary History, ed. Jay Clayton and Eric Rothstein (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), pp. 146-80.

  14. See, for example, Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (London: Methuen, 1980); Chris Weedon, Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987); and Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art (London: Routledge, 1988).

  15. For two overviews of the early development of women's studies in the United States, see Florence Howe, Myths of Coeducation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), and Marilyn Boxer, “For and about Women: The Theory and Practice of Women's Studies in the United States,” Signs, 7 (Spring 1982), 661-95.

  16. A sampling of particularly influential texts includes Barbara Smith, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” (1977), in Showalter, The New Feminist Criticism, pp. 168-85; Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds., This Bridge Called My Back (Watertown, Massachusetts: Persephone Press, 1981); Gloria T. Hull, et al., eds., All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (Old Westbury, New York: Feminist Press, 1982); Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Trumansburg, New York: The Crossing Press, 1984); bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984); Walker, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens; Alice Yun Chai, “Toward a Holistic Paradigm for Asian American Women's Studies: A Synthesis of Feminist Scholarship and Women of Color's Feminist Politics,” Women's Studies International Forum, 8, No. 1 (1985), 59-66; Paula Gunn Allen, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986); Spivak, In Other Worlds; and Mohanty, et al., eds., Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Many influential white feminists responded quickly to the call of women of color; see, for example, Adrienne Rich, Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1985 (New York: Norton, 1986).

  17. I address this process of Americanization in “Post/Poststructuralist Feminist Criticism: The Politics of Recuperation and Negotiation,” in New Literary History, 22 (Spring 1991), 465-90.

  18. For discussion of intergenerational feminist conflict, see, for example, Evelyn Fox Keller and Helen Moglen, “Competition and Feminism: Conflicts for Academic Women,” Signs, 12, No. 3 (1987), 493-511.

  19. As I write in November of 1992, I am eager to see what happens to this campus-based feminist activism with the defeat of George Bush and the promise of reproductive control for women with access to health care in the Clinton presidency. Scarce economic resources and the political volatility around issues of the family, sexuality, and reproduction suggest a need for continued activism.

  20. Letter to author, 24 July 1992.

I would like to thank Laura Doan for asking that I write this essay and, for their insightful criticisms of an earlier version, Holly Laird and Heather DuBrow.

Felicity A. Nussbaum (essay date fall 1993)

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SOURCE: Nussbaum, Felicity A. “(White) Anglo-American Feminism in Non-US/Non-us Space.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 12, no. 2 (fall 1993): 263-70.

[In the following essay, Nussbaum discusses the historical significance of the term “Anglo-American feminist criticism” nearly twenty years after the publication of Sexual/Textual Politics.]

That the history of Anglo-American feminism's conflict within and without itself is being written and rewritten testifies to its power as an originary moment for feminism in the 1990s. The nostalgia for the apparent solidarity of Moers and Showalter, Gilbert and Gubar, Ellmann and Millett, Jehlen and Kolodny, Chodorow and Gilligan, both celebrates Anglo-American feminism's significance and cautions us to reconsider the simplified narratives that have evolved about this early stage of feminism. While the work of these pioneering scholars cannot be ignored, the term “Anglo-American feminism” has outlasted its usefulness and should only be invoked now as an historically coded concept. Evelyn Fox Keller aptly points out, “A focus on the supposed coherence of seventies feminism obscures the fact that, from its earliest days, feminist theory was in fact characterized by a marked multiplicity in its goals, and in its stated functions.”1 The extent of that multiplicity has not yet been fully analyzed, recorded, and assimilated into feminism's history.

As is well known, Toril Moi in 1985 found it useful to describe a cross-national group of English and North American feminists as bourgeois anti-intellectuals, author-centered empiricists, and liberal humanists in order to contrast them with “French” feminists. The ire that Sexual/Textual Politics aroused in setting up this binary may have been in part because Moi was among the first to destroy the illusion of a unified feminism by categorizing and thus reifying feminism's divisions. The subsequent debate among the leading feminist imperial powers encouraged theory wars between two or three nations, distracted attention from feminism in the rest of the world, and produced the uncanny effect of largely erasing class, race, and sexuality from the debates. Certainly differences existed between English and American feminism in its second wave, and linking the two together elides these distinctions. We may isolate different historical markers for each nation: in England, the History Workshop Conference in the mid-sixties, the founding of New Left Review and the Marxist-Feminist Literary Collective in the seventies, and the Greenham Common Peace Camp in 1981; in the US the civil rights and anti-war movement of the sixties and seventies and the defeat of the ERA in the eighties. But here I am much less concerned with distinguishing between English and American feminist practices (though that too has its purpose) than with questioning what significance raising the issue of Anglo-American feminism may have at this historical moment. Rereading histories of feminism (with the benefit of hindsight) reveals their telling silences.

Sexual/Textual Politics has been justly criticized for claiming a materialist feminist position while failing to theorize Marxist and socialist feminism as challenges to “Anglo-American” or “French” feminism. For example, England's Marxist-Feminist Literary Collective in the 1970s is barely mentioned, and influential feminists such as Michèle Barrett, Rosalind Coward, and Juliet Mitchell merit only a page or two. More recently Betsy Draine, while carefully contesting the “rhetoric of mutual de-legitimation” of Anglo-American and French feminism and exposing “each as a myth in need of interpretation and change,” slights the more political and racially self-conscious materialist feminism.2 Draine's attention to materialist feminism is confined to a discussion of Jane Miller's Women Writing about Men (1986) in spite of the fact that she finds that approach most “promising for the future of feminist discourse.”3 Because materialist feminism remained largely unaddressed and unassimilated into hegemonic feminism in the mid-1980s, especially in the US, this third kind of feminism lost a crucial opportunity to intervene in “national” debates as a methodology with global implications. By largely excluding the Marxist/socialist/materialist position, Moi and others missed an opportunity to revitalize its arguments and contribute to its international dissemination at a crucial moment in feminism's history. I take these omissions and editorial decisions to be indicative of the prevailing ideology of the (white) feminist movement rather than these critics' intentional invocation of racial or class privilege, but the effect has been to reinscribe liberal and poststructuralist feminisms.

In fact materialist feminism is itself liable to a charge of omitting race and sexuality as categories of analysis, but it does offer a theoretical grounding, as yet largely unrealized, for discussing women's racialized, lesbian, and laboring bodies. Its mode of inquiry considers the relation between multinational economic and political structures and feminism, and it asks what feminism can do to alleviate the uneven material conditions among the world's unorganized laboring women as well as enable feminist intellectual production in whatever geographical location. Materialist feminism rejects the compatibility of advanced capitalism with feminism and thus moves Third World feminism (itself a contested term), embedded in other economic and social systems, toward the center of its concerns. As First and Third Worlds are increasingly interfused with each other, feminists committed to racial change need to heed challenges from every venue to the dominant paradigms of feminist thought.

Further, cultural imperialism continues to bear on feminism's history, and its complicity with racism has not yet been thoroughly examined. Part of the process of achieving a new collective identity for feminism involves recognizing the whiteness of feminist theory's tradition as it has been written. Most women of color already know this; many white feminists don't. As Chela Sandoval has written, “the U.S. women's movement of the seventies was officially renamed the ‘white women's movement’ by U.S. feminists of color, a re-naming which insisted on the recognition of other, simultaneously existing women's movements.”4

Perhaps instead of burying Anglo-American feminism once and for all, we might instead redefine its contributions, limitations, and contradictions in order to displace its centrality and begin producing an alternative narrative about it. For example, Moi's history from a mid-eighties perspective would have taken a distinctly different tack if she had responded to cotemporal work such as Hazel Carby's 1982 injunction, “White Woman Listen” or Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar's “Challenging Imperial Feminism,” or had she focused on the 1982 Combahee River Collective's statement, Angela Davis's Women, Race, and Class, bell hooks's Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, or the anthologies But Some of Us Are Brave, edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives, edited by Gloria Joseph and Jill Lewis, and This Bridge Called My Back: Writing by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, as indicators of feminist theory's stakes.5 These revisionary texts, in spite of significant theoretical content and in spite of having been written by Americans and Britons, were simply disregarded by those who have composed the history of Anglo-American feminism. The effect was to postpone (white) feminism's confrontation with its blindnesses. Even today, writes Michele Wallace, “there exists no critical discourse … no language specifically calibrated to reflect and describe analytically the location of women of color in US culture.”6

We might compile a similar list of lesbian theory available in the early eighties, including work such as Adrienne Rich's groundbreaking essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, edited by Carole S. Vance, or any of Audre Lorde's books.7 It was Moi's judgement that in 1985 “lesbian and/or black feminist criticism … presented exactly the same methodological and theoretical problems as the rest of Anglo-American feminist criticism.”8 Perhaps this is the reason that the lesbian content of Monique Wittig's theory was not discussed. In other words, for Moi in 1985 lesbian and black feminist criticism presented no challenge to US (white) feminists.

It is the whiteness, heterosexuality, and First World nature of that early feminism that we might now place in the foreground as part of its conception, just as we are now beginning to critique the Enlightenment feminism of Mary Wollstonecraft for its class-bound and racialized nature. What would an Afrocentric or non-Western (rather than AmerEurocentric) history of Anglo-American feminism look like? For example, white Anglo-American empiricism has not encountered and engaged with the appeal to experience voiced by women of color. Further, in the late seventies and early eighties, both African-and Anglo-American feminism displayed a commitment to archival work and to the idea of a uniquely female essence. Do these various forms of feminist theory share the same female body? A revised white/women of color feminist history might attempt to account for the different models of subjectivity presented within these groups while maintaining common cause. That common cause involves reimagining the current division of people by sexual organs and sexual preference, reconstructing the sexual division of labor and its connections to production and reproduction, and redefining gendered subjectivity. A revision of this history of Anglo-American feminism would topple white feminism as the standard against which all other feminisms are measured.

But enough of missed opportunities. Throughout feminism's history, its willingness to be openly self-reflexive can be extremely productive in resisting current patterns of thought and forging new paths. In fact, we might locate within Anglo-American feminism a radical aspect that could be reclaimed in the name of identity politics and that counters the diffusion of subjectivity characteristic of the postmodern moment. Anglo-American feminism often emphasizes the crucial use of women's experience as it differs from men's. From its contradiction in claiming at the same time a special relation to experience and a neutral knowledge, a demand to theorize experience and its relation to reality and to language has evolved. From its critique of the cultural construction of women, an appeal to the strategic uses of essentialism has been brought to bear. In rewriting feminism's history within these spaces of contradiction, non-US/non-us feminism may look to the Third and Fourth Worlds for culturally and historically specific models of subjectivity that remain very much to be articulated. (White) Anglo-American feminism when taken in tandem with these other colorings of feminism makes possible the recognition that even constructivism becomes essentializing if it is assumed to be a merely cognitive position that exists outside ideology and material structures. Not all essentialisms are alike. A new feminist history might make feminism less vulnerable to easy assimilation and help it escape the colonialist tendencies that contravene its oppositional politics.

At this historical juncture, the distinctions and connections between British and American feminism matter less in the 1990s than First World/Third World hybrids and intersections or connections with indigenous populations. But the fact that we are even raising the question of Anglo-American feminism gives US/us a chance to look at the connections between the late seventies and early eighties when it rose to prominence and our present moment, between the ushering in and flourishing of the conservative Bush/Reagan/Major/Thatcher climate and its uneasy moderation in Major and Clinton. We might ask what use the invoking of national identities by First World feminists served a decade ago. Is it possible that with the growing threat of multinational corporations in the seventies, an identity based on nation had considerable appeal and political force even in the First World? Or is it more likely, as I believe, that (white) feminism inadvertently found itself in collusion with US economic and geopolitical interests? A revisionary history of feminism would address the consequences for feminism of acknowledging different priorities for women around the world because of their various relationships to the concept of “nation” and its collusion in imperial and First World privilege.

This current decade will surely bring further First World consolidation and increasing power to multinational corporations. At this stage of feminist thinking, categorizing feminisms according to national identities may be a reactionary approach in the First World, while in the Third World it may contribute to the growth of feminism. Kumari Jayawardena argues that feminism was not imposed on the Third World by the West but is indigenous to it. She contends that establishing national identity was linked to challenging imperialism, and that nationalism in such a context may have a purposefulness for feminism.9 Similarly for Muslim or Hindu women, improvements in status may be associated with antireligious and pro-Western “concessions to the colonizer,” as Fatima Mernissi and Lata Mani have argued in different contexts.10 In contrast, the emphasis on First World national feminisms such as Anglo-American and French feminism tends to reinforce the “Eurocentric view that the movement for women's liberation is not indigenous to Asia and Africa, but has been a purely West European and North American phenomenon, and that where movements for women's emancipation or feminist struggles have arisen in the Third World, they have been merely imitative of Western models.”11 In addition, nationalism in a postcolonial age may be, for the First World at least, an alignment with the desire to name, codify, and map that characterized the early phases of Euro-American empire and expansion. Though Thatcher was brought down in part because of her nationalist demands on the European Economic Community, Bush triumphed with his nationalist Gulf War cry. A revisionary history of Anglo-American feminism might attempt to address the problem that defining identity through geography raises.

Putting the most favorable construction on First World nationalism would allow US/us to conceptualize “nation” as feminist rather than to reproduce the usual associations of patriotism with militarism and masculinity. On the other hand, it might lead us to believe that a First World conceptualization of nationalism in feminist terms cannot counter the imperialist and militarist practices associated with it. Further, if we speak of feminist criticism's nationality, is it to be the nationality of the critic, her place of origin, or the place where she currently resides or works? Or is it to be the nationality of the work in question, of the object of study? We also have to reckon with the impossibility of occupying the position of authentic ethnic spectator, as Rey Chow, Gayatri Spivak, and others have pointed out.12 Any position at the present time is a hybridization of tradition and modernity, of the native informant and the displaced Westernized woman. Rather than assume that these contradictions and split allegiances will demoralize and enervate feminism, we might welcome the contest.

It is no secret that there is a deep ambivalence concerning radical action in feminism. Hanging on to the umbilical cord of Anglo-American feminism has also supported its shrinking from revolutionary goals of feminism into a local and personal politics. The defeat of the ERA and the movement from street politics to individual achievement and institutional association have led many to characterize the present movement as lethargic and even defunct. US/us academic feminists in particular find themselves in collusion with the power structures, and the stakes have shifted significantly since the late 1970s. bell hooks describes the situation as “a kind of private property or ownership of certain categories” of feminism.13 This is not unconnected to the way that multinationals set First and Third World women against each other as consumers and laborers in an international division of labor. Annette Fuentes and Barbara Ehrenreich have shown that in the decade of the 1960s, “investment in offshore manufacturing by U.S. firms mushroomed from $11.1 billion to $29.5 billion.”14 Women have much invested in recognizing their common interests across national, class, race, and sexuality boundaries.

In short, I am suggesting that the question “Is there an Anglo-American feminism?” may be used to reflect on the contradictions of our mentors and on their local participation in larger global predicaments that remained beyond their ken just as ours are not fully visible to US/us. This is also an opportunity to question US feminists' residual resistances to redefining that history. Rather than homogenizing these discordant effects, bringing these disagreements to the foreground may energize a divided movement.

Looking again at Anglo-American feminism reminds us to confront openly whether feminism is somehow inherently white, Western, heterosexual, and middle class. The “identity” of US/us feminism is changing from a singular identity to a collective identity, but at the same time the dominant political temperament is deeply conservative and profoundly individualistic. The current challenge is to reconfigure feminism as an incommensurable (but renderable) collectivity in which the Other engages in reading, writing, teaching, and other political activities in the presence of and along side the problematic “self.”15 A not altogether frivolous way of escaping national boundaries and the inadequacy of a First World/Third World frame is to move into another space to intercept feminism's “Star Wars” and create new galaxies. This extraterrestrial collectivity might be guided by those who recognize feminism's energy in less predictable non-US/us spaces and places. But for those who prefer a worldly domain, the current despair and pessimism about feminism and its theory might be reimagined as a redirection away from white feminism to a global feminism. Women of color and lesbian women of all “races” are already engaged in radical redefinition rather than in nostalgia for what once was, and they have recharged feminism's batteries. White feminism is in crisis, not feminism itself.


  1. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller, “Practicing Conflict in Feminist Theory,” Conflicts in Feminism, ed. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), p. 382.

  2. Betsy Draine, “Refusing the Wisdom of Solomon: Some Recent Feminist Literary Theory,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 15, No. 1 (1989), 145, n.3; 146, n.4.

  3. Draine, p. 169.

  4. Chela Sandoval, unpublished dissertation cited in Katie King, “Producing Sex, Theory, and Culture: Gay/Straight Remappings in Contemporary Feminism,” in Hirsch and Keller, p. 95, n.1. See also Sandoval, “U.S. Third World Feminism: The Theory and Method of Oppositional Consciousness in the Postmodern World,” Genders, 10 (Spring 1991), 1-24.

  5. Hazel Carby, “White Woman Listen,” in The Empire Strikes Back (London: Hutchinson, 1982); Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar, “Challenging Imperial Feminism,” Feminist Review, 14 (1984); Angela Davis, Women, Race, and Class (New York: Random House, 1981); bell hooks, Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston: South End Press, 1981); Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds., But Some of Us Are Brave (Old Westbury, New York: Feminist Press, 1982); Gloria Joseph and Jill Lewis, eds., Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives (New York: Anchor Press, 1981); and Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (Watertown, Massachusetts: Persephone Press, 1981).

  6. Michele Wallace, Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory (London and New York: Verso, 1990), p. 222.

  7. See Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Signs, 5, No. 4 (1980), 631-60. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson, eds., Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983); Carole S. Vance, ed., Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984).

  8. Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (London and New York: Methuen, 1985), p. 86.

  9. Kumari Jayawardena, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World (London and New Delhi: Zed Books, 1986), p. 5.

  10. Fatima Mernissi, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Modern Muslim Society (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1975), p. vii, and Lata Mani, “Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India,” Cultural Critique, 7 (Fall 1987), 119-56.

  11. Jayawardena, p. 2.

  12. See, for example, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Post-colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues, ed. Sarah Harasym (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), and Rey Chow, Woman and Chinese Modernity: The Politics of Reading Between West and East (Minneapolis and Oxford: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

  13. The quotation appears in Mary Childers and bell hooks, “A Conversation about Race and Class,” in Hirsh and Keller, p. 66.

  14. Annette Fuentes and Barbara Ehrenreich, Women in the Global Factory (Boston: South End Press, 1983), p. 24.

  15. For the concept of speaking along side, see Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. 101.

Christina M. Howells (review date 6 May 1994)

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SOURCE: Howells, Christina M. “The Making of Beauvoir.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4753 (6 May 1994): 22.

[In the following review, Howells treats the multiple approaches to biography in Simone de Beauvoir.]

Toril Moi's subtitle [of Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman] gives a clear indication of the substance of her work. Professor Moi examines what Simone de Beauvoir made of what had been made of her—what Sartre, in his study of Flaubert, calls the stages of “constitution” and “personalization”, or, in terms closer to Engels, how Beauvoir made history on the basis of what history had made her. And Simone de Beauvoir would surely have liked Moi's historical, even dialectical, method—to be the object of an intellectual biography written with both acumen and empathy. Beauvoir's own biographies are all of her own life, making her both the subject and the object of study, the analytic and sympathetic observer of her psychological development, always split yet never distanced from herself. Beauvoir and Sartre both allowed posterity access to their personal letters—written, perhaps, with posterity in mind as the ultimate recipient?—in the interests of scholarship, and with an explicit distaste for intimate secrets, the inner life and private journals (the recourse of virgins and priests, as Roquentin dismissively commented).

Moi's own most frequent methodological reference points are the works of Pierre Bourdieu and the philosophical feminism of Michèle le Doeuff. But Moi's work is very much her own, and it is marked in particular by its explicit acknowledgement of its own situated nature, its “subjectivity”—not as opposed to some impossible “objective” perspective, but rather recognizing itself as the work of a feminist thinker in the 1990s, half a century after the pioneering enterprise of Beauvoir. And the historical aspect of Moi's study has a compelling fascination; we learn of the gradual accession of women students to the agrégation (the demanding competitive examination for would-be lycée and university teachers), to university education and ultimately to the prestigious Grandes Ecoles (which went “mixed”, incidentally, even more recently than Oxford colleges). But the young Simone de Beauvoir was initially impervious to the institutionalized sexism of her time, feeling herself to be on an equal footing with her male contemporaries, “second only to Sartre” and unquestioning of the naturalization of patriarchal attitudes even in student society. It seems to have been the writing of Le Deuxième Sexe itself that finally converted Beauvoir to active feminism, and it was not until 1971 that she accepted the term as applying to herself. In this respect, Beauvoir's philosophical universalism clearly interfered with her political radicalism.

Similar conflicts of interest would also appear to apply in Beauvoir's sexual and social life. Defining “lesbian” as exclusively homosexual permitted her to deny her own lesbianism without even admitting—still less proclaiming—the lesbian practices of her bisexual period. She seems to have reserved the notion of true sexual relations for the sphere of heterosexual romantic passion, and was able to convince herself of the triviality—and contingency—of her physical relations with other women. Indeed her seductions of young pupils, male and female, and of some of Sartre's lovers, do not make pleasant reading, even in Moi's tolerant version. In this context we may consider Moi's analysis of the discussions of bad faith in L'Etre et le néant and L'Invitée (She Came to Stay). Moi argues convincingly in favour of Beauvoir's more sensitive and complex female perspective on an episode in which a male suitor forces the pace of a first date by taking a woman's hand. Sartre emphasizes the bad faith of the woman who pretends to herself that she has not noticed what has happened; Beauvoir stresses rather the aggression and implicit power of the male action. But even if we concur with Moi's preference for Beauvoir's analysis, Beauvoir herself appears ultimately to be judged by it—a sexual predator, using the trappings of seduction and her own prestige as a teacher to amuse herself (and Sartre vicariously) by engaging in loveless sex which she frequently claims sickens her.

Moi analyses Beauvoir's life, art and philosophy as a totality traversed by the conflicts and contradictions of her age. One of the most disturbing recurrent motifs concerns precisely Beauvoir's conception of masculinity which is privileged in a way contemporary feminists necessarily find unpalatable. Beauvoir sees humanity, philosophy and analysis as non-gender-specific, but their characteristics are all those of the masculine. This makes Beauvoir, initially at least, an “honorary male” in her inability to recognize the problem. And of course, as Moi argues, it is in this sense too that she is a product of her age: she was not able, historically, to step outside the parameters of thought that imprisoned her. Not, that is, until times had changed significantly, and the French women's liberation movement had raised the profile of female oppression in the 1960s and 70s. Moi sets out, using a combination of sociological, psychoanalytic and feminist perspectives, to reinstate Beauvoir to her rightful position as a feminist precursor, in the face of her current unpopularity. Her portrait of Simone de Beauvoir disturbs our good consciences by showing us how historically determined our politically correct attitudes remain. How many contemporary feminists—or post-feminists—would have escaped domestic drudgery had they been born in 1909? Simone de Beauvoir was the woman who allowed our current easy hostility to the sexism of which she was a victim and which she herself, to some extent, inadvertently embodied.

Deborah Knight (essay date winter 1995)

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SOURCE: Knight, Deborah. “The Rhetoric of Theory: Responses to Toril Moi.” New Literary History 26, no. 1 (winter 1995): 63-70.

[In the following essay, Knight analyzes the antithetical relationship between “theory” and “feminist theory,” comparing the critical practices of both kinds of thought.]

In “Women, Subjectivity, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Humanism in Feminist Film Theory,” I investigate some of the ways in which feminist (film) theory relates itself to, and distinguishes itself from, theory in general. If one imagines that feminist theory is something that is distinct from theory due to a specifically political causal history, then feminist theory will be inclined to relate itself to theory confrontationally. If on the other hand feminist theory is understood as something which follows from, or responds to, work done in a prior or dominant theoretical domain, then it might be condemned in perpetuity to being asymmetrically dependent upon that prior domain. Both these possibilities—that feminist theory confronts another theoretical discourse, or that feminist theory is inevitably subordinated to a prior theoretical discourse—risk leaving feminist theory in just the sort of disadvantaged, marginalized position vis-à-vis that prior domain that women occupy within patriarchy. One of my objectives in this paper is to dissolve the exclusionary, dichotomized opposition between theory and feminist theory by indicating just the degree to which, by engaging in feminist theory, we also engage in, and modify, theory.

More specifically, I offer a symptomatic account of a critical strategy which one encounters generally, both in theory and in feminist theory. This strategy involves organizing a debate around two antithetical positions. Moreover, the privileged position—the anti-humanist position, in the particular case I consider—creates its antagonist through the use of oversimplifying and reductive caricaturizations of that position. Anti-humanism, under one description or another, is the positively valued term of a binary pair, and humanism, as the antagonist of anti-humanism, becomes the negatively valued term. Now, anti-humanism is a framework which organizes and directs much recent and contemporary theoretical work, including work by feminists. There are various anti-humanisms on the market these days, just as there are various modernisms, various postmodernisms, and so forth. Nevertheless, part of what distinguishes the construction of the debate around an apparently self-evident opposition between anti-humanists and humanists is a governing set of directive ideas about what marks the difference; that there are identifiable directive ideas shared by various anti-humanists does not require that all anti-humanists be involved in exactly the same critical or theoretical project.

What interests me here is not how particular anti-humanisms differ—though that could be the topic of another paper. What I am interested in here is how, at a certain level, different anti-humanisms participate in the same, or at least very similar, styles of argument. Thus I draw attention to the critique of a certain conception of agency, subjectivity, and reasoning which anti-humanists portray as characteristically humanist. This conception of agency, subjectivity, and reasoning is described as masculine, or in Derrida's vocabulary as phallogocentric; and nearly everyone points to Descartes—or at least to something rather more vaguely described as Cartesianism—as the source of and continuing support for this masculinist, phallic understanding of a centered, unified, self-originating, intentional subject, fully in control of his meanings.

This phallic subject is an immediate object of critique; it could not be otherwise, since the relationship between anti-humanism and humanism is not simply a descriptive carving up of a field but more fundamentally a normative, evaluative demarcation. From the perspective of feminist theory, it is hard to imagine what could be a more obvious and immediate signal of negative valuation than modifiers like “masculine” and “phallic.” The tendency to celebrate the phallic subject's Other—conceived variously as a decentered, ex-centric, or fragmented subject, or as a discursive subject, or as a subject in process—is a consequence of this oppositional pattern of evaluation.

I draw attention to this because the very framework of the debate risks cutting off possibilities for theoretical and critical investigation. For instance, it is far from clear that the description of the subject attributed to humanists is actually generally held any longer (if indeed it was ever generally held). So to continue to characterize the humanist subject in these general terms, where the attributes of the humanist subject are themselves subjected to a negative evaluation, means that any analysis of subjectivity and agency which wants to think in terms of some sort of unity, some sort of relationship between the subject and what she means or intends, and so forth, puts one at risk of being condemned by those working within an anti-humanist framework. To such an anti-humanist, talk about unity and so forth might well be condemned as not being political, or not political enough, or not political in the right way. In Krauss's terms, one might be condemned for engaging in a masculinist practice, for “using language to do business as usual.”

The object of my criticism, then, is a rhetorical tendency with a built-in technique of self-legitimation, where part of what is involved in the self-legitimation is precisely the exclusion of those who challenge the normative presuppositions of the framework. To give up the oppositional framework ought to allow feminist theorists to engage in a profitable reexamination of concepts like subjectivity, power, reason, equality, and so forth. My interest in the interconnection between directive ideas and critical practices may betray that I am a philosopher, but this interest is anything but a case of “purely abstract speculation.”

Given my position, I fail to see the relevance or the appropriateness of the militaristic metaphors in terms of which Toril Moi casts her account of feminist theory “according to Deborah Knight.” Nor do I agree with her implication that my work fails to address itself to issues of ideology. Finally, if I understand her, I am far from persuaded by her recommendation that we employ a Sartrean gambit in order to do away with “purely abstract speculations” about subjectivity, agency, and the self. In what follows I will address these three concerns.


As I have indicated, the militaristic rhetoric is Moi's. The “vamp” camp and the “mirror” camp, qua camps battling it out against one another, are Moi's invention. The idea of “mirror” criticism and “vamp” criticism is due, of course, to Gilbert and Gubar. Their important insights about “mirror” critics and “vamp” critics, to which I have drawn attention, include these: (1) each critical position is partly defined by its rhetorical style and strategy; (2) it is part of the style and strategy of “vamps” to underplay the degree to which authorship and tradition are paradoxically used to legitimate their rejection of certain conceptions of authorship and tradition, or even to reject certain authors and certain traditions; and (3) both “mirror” critics and “vamp” critics have a feminist political agenda.

I certainly do not say, claim, imply, argue, believe, or think that feminist theory is a simple dichotomy between two neatly opposed factions of feminists. As I have indicated, I am particularly interested in the way in which feminist theory interconnects with theory, so the first sort of connection I have considered does not even involve different groups of feminists, but differing ways in which feminist theory interacts with theory. As for the idea that feminist theorists belong to mutually exclusive camps, surely this is, as Moi remarks, simplistic. What I am interested in are certain rhetorical strategies and tendencies, and these can and do appear across a very broad field (which is not a battlefield) of actual critical practices.

Not only is the militaristic rhetoric Moi's, the description of the opposition between the two “camps” is hers as well. I certainly do not imagine that the humanist/anti-humanist rhetorics which I analyze cash out in anything like a group of humanists who “believe in politics, social change, agency, and the existence of women,” and another group of anti-humanists who “have no sense of history or tradition, and [who] believe that female subjectivity does not exist.” If this were a legitimate description of anti-humanism, it is hard to see what could persuade anyone to take it seriously. Though Moi is totally silent on my reasons for examining the opposition between humanism and anti-humanism, I am happy to agree with her about the singular pointlessness of engaging in an argument about her “two camp” description, since it is one that neither of us agrees with or would care to defend.

Even so, it is little wonder Moi believes that there is at least one tradition of anti-humanist feminism which cannot be fitted into either of these “camps” she has burdened me with. I'd be amazed to find anyone who did fit into either camp as Moi has characterized them. But by drawing attention to socialist-feminists and (ex-) Marxist-feminists, Moi reminds us that critical rhetorics are not the only features of theoretical practice worthy of extended investigation. We should not fail to recognize the significance of the interconnection between rhetorical strategies and routines, on the one hand, and particular critical schools, on the other. I submit that Moi and the other socialist or (ex-) Marxist feminists to whom she refers are, precisely, members of a critical school. But this school is in turn part of the broader theoretical movement known as poststructuralism—a movement inflected, of course, with Althusserian and/or Maoist politics in France, and with socialist and neo-Marxian Left political developments in the United Kingdom. And since it is no part of my argument that anti-humanism entails anything like what Moi claims I maintain, it is also little wonder that the school of socialist and (ex-) Marxist feminists would not recognize themselves under the description of anti-humanism that Moi has provided.


Poststructuralism dominated film theory in the seventies and eighties, and much attention was paid to the interconnections between subjectivity and ideology, to the determinative role of language and perception, and to the work of Althusser as well as Lacan. So Moi has perhaps been hasty to suggest that I am unfamiliar with the centrality accorded to the investigation of the ideological effects of various dominant forms of representation.

It is precisely because I too have felt the influence of the ideological and symptomatic criticisms which characterized much of the theoretical work of that period that I am engaged in my current critique of rhetorical strategies. Where Moi wishes to focus attention on the dominant representations of subjectivity and in particular the ideological effects of liberal notions of subjectivity and agency in the period of late capitalism, I am interested in the ideological effects of rhetorical strategies in various theoretical and academic practices. I do not see that this is any less a political undertaking than her own.

It seems, however, that Moi uses the term “ideology” in several different senses which need to be more clearly distinguished. “Ideology” is a notoriously multivalent term, of course, as has been pointed out by virtually everyone who has written on the subject, especially since the term came back into vogue thanks to Althusser and Gramsci. Moi uses “ideology” as both a descriptive and an evaluative term, and so we find, played out again, just the sort of tendency that I have drawn attention to in my examination of the descriptive-evaluative use of terms like “subject” and its various attendant modifiers. Indeed, Moi's various uses of the term “ideology” shift between thinking of ideology as a certain sort of cause, as a certain sort of effect, as a certain political agenda, as a set of publicly scrutinizable ideas, as a set of ideas that can only be discovered through a symptomatic reading of social, political, or cultural practices, and as a term of abuse or criticism. I admit I don't use the term “ideology” much these days. I have used it much less frequently since it occurred to me, some years ago, that I was extremely dubious that there was “a dominant ideology,” except of course as a theorist's fiction. Overreliance on the term “ideology” can produce strange arguments. If I understand Moi, she holds that the dominant representation of the bourgeois subject is itself an ideology (as well as being an effect of ideology), which in its turn is at the center of patriarchal ideology in the twentieth century. I am not sure how explanatory it is to posit an ideology at the center of an ideology.

But if we can restate this point without reference to ideologies, Moi's concern is with a conception of liberalism which sees humans atomistically, as individual locuses of responsibility and individual possessors of rights and obligations. She is concerned about the consequences of sociopolitical and economic arrangements which hold the individual responsible for herself, and which refuse to acknowledge that individuals might be rendered unequal or subjected to comparative disadvantage by the gender-biased assumptions (about individualism, responsibility, and so on) which undergird the system in the first place. Such concerns are indeed valid. What I do not agree with, or accept, is that all characterizations of subjects in terms of some degree or other of unity, and so on, either lead to or follow from this sort of liberal conception of atomistic individualism. Which is why I argue for the centrality of intersubjectivity and the importance of historical and social contextualization for our understanding of particular agents and their actions.

So I am perplexed when Moi returns, at this point in her commentary, once again to attribute to me belief in a two-camp, either/or vision of the feminist battlefield. She says of me that “it is as if [I believe] that the only two alternatives around are either to accept the liberal humanist story of unchallenged individual power and integrity or to believe that agency, memory, or women do not exist.” I have not said that these are the only two alternatives around. What I have said, however, is that all arguments that become polarized in this sort of extreme dichotomization are counterproductive and moreover probably false. This particular dichotomy is certainly false. What we want to do is abandon the dichotomy.


Subjectivity and the self have been directive ideas throughout modernity, which for present purposes can be dated back to the sixteenth century. In our contemporary intellectual context, we find ourselves working with or responding to conceptual frameworks that have their roots in (to name some representatives) the traditions of rationalism and empiricism, romanticism, idealism, Marxism, Freudian psychoanalysis, and Nietzschean nihilism—not to mention the literary and artistic modernisms and avant-gardes of the last hundred years or so. With such a rich and varied history, it is little wonder that subjectivity and the self are still concepts we find intensely fascinating.

But subjectivity is no signpost, and even if it were, why would we imagine that the best thing to do upon discovering the signpost is to dig? The metaphorics Moi uses here imply that only by getting down into the messy empirical depths of things will we find clues or answers to questions about the self. Only by going deeper will we discover the truth about subjectivity. Subjectivity on this account sounds like buried treasure. But of course subjectivity cannot be a “signpost”—except of course, metaphorically—since subjectivity is not a sign. Subjectivity is a concept, and we can only make sense of it by considering the interconnections between it and other central concepts (including among many others concepts such as self and agent, understanding and interpretation, individual and community) that form the basis of the intentional vocabulary by means of which we talk about ourselves and each other.

Certainly one is not going to be able to dig down in the self to the point where one uncovers one's subject—a point long acknowledged in modern philosophy, and stated with admirable clarity by philosophers as diverse in outlook as Descartes, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Wittgenstein (the list is scarcely exhaustive). If “we”—and I'm not sure who all Moi is including here—are more anxious and self-centered today than Sartre was, that may in part be explained because it is no longer clear that there are selves at all, at least not in the way “we” might have previously imagined, as what Daniel C. Dennett calls “selfy” selves. I think there is every reason to believe that Hume and Kant were both right to acknowledge that the self or subject is not something we will find as an object in the realm of experience. The subject is not there to be experienced; it is what experiences. So certainly the self or subject is not going to be unearthed or dug up. I cannot dig up my self as subject through autobiographical activities, anymore than I can dig up another's self as subject through biographical activities. What we discover on such archaeological expeditions might be a wealth of information and data, but as information and data it presupposes the very thing that Moi suggests we were hunting for in the first place: the subject which we were supposed to be digging for under the signpost. What is presupposed during the dig reveals that the self or subject is an organizational category. It is a means of ordering experience in terms of a persisting experiencer.

So it is not clear to me that Moi offers a significant alternative to my own position when she opts for what I want to call the Sartrean gambit, which it seems is intended to forestall “purely abstract speculations on the topic” of subjectivity. As I understand Moi—and I phrase it this way because the view I now attribute to her is not the one I originally understood her to be advocating, so I might well be mistaken—the Sartrean gambit is to replace the theoretical or critical study of the concept of subjectivity with the practical investigation of some actual person or other. The Sartrean gambit enjoins us to give up philosophy and instead to take up (auto)biography. It encourages us to stop splitting hairs in the abstract domain of concepts and to focus instead on the concrete cases of real people.

Autobiography and biography may lead us to a better understanding of some individual or other. They can do this because both autobiography and biography subscribe to views about what subjective experience is like, and how it is made meaningful through the production of a storied life. But the storied life is just another, more extended, means of ordering experience. And the sort of ordering in question, as I indicate in my paper, is fundamentally narrative. To throw our energies into “digging down” into someone else's life (as Sartre did with Flaubert), or even to “dig down” into one's own life, will not allow us to discover anything about the concepts and categories that organize our thinking—we use those categories to direct our “digging.” The metaphorics of signpost and the metaphorics of digging at a signpost are both wrong. The examination of concepts like “subject” and “self” is not comparable to archaeological investigation (in the non-Foucauldian sense of archaeology).

Reflection on the meaning of concepts is still the purview of philosophical and theoretical inquiry. This might seem to some to be a pointlessly abstract sort of undertaking. But as I have attempted to indicate in the account of the interconnection between subjectivity and narrative at the end of my paper, a better understanding of the terms that frame our investigation has direct implications for how actual persons understand each other. And this is not “purely abstract speculation”; it is in fact an account of a concrete and political social practice.

Catherine A. Civello (review date winter 1996)

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SOURCE: Civello, Catherine A. Review of Simone de Beauvoir, by Toril Moi. Southern Humanities Review 30, no. 1 (winter 1996): 87-90.

[In the following review, Civello praises the insights and organization of Simone de Beauvoir.]

Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics has become required reading in the area of feminist theory. Her latest work, Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman, equals the excellence of the first, but for different reasons. The former brilliantly surveys French and Anglo-American theory, comparing both while sacrificing the heterogeneity of neither. The latter concentrates on one French theorist, Simone de Beauvoir, calling her “the greatest feminist theorist of our century.”

In the introduction to Simone de Beauvoir, Moi defines her terms, reveals her assumptions, and describes her methodology. “Intellectual woman” means one who “refuses to accept the dichotomy between mind and body, sense and seduction.” Along with a mini-essay in the afterword, the concept of the intellectual woman in love not only frames the book but also provides the context for argumentation—effective organization since Moi assumes no distinction between life and text, literature and philosophy. My quarrels with the book are small, but I am relieved that Moi drops the label “personal genealogy” early on; her explanation of it unnecessarily complicates what is an otherwise model introduction.

The very structure of Simone de Beauvoir is feminist and will remind those who have read Sexual/Textual Politics of the discussion of écriture féminine therein. The body of the text corresponds to “three textual moments” in Beauvoir's work, established by Moi as inseparable from Beauvoir's life. Part one explicates a 1929 conversation between Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre; in this section, Moi investigates the differences in their education. Part two focuses on Beauvoir's postwar relationship with Sartre; Moi examines the social conflicts for intellectual women at that time in France. Part three looks at Beauvoir's frame of mind at middle age and asks why this accomplished woman was so depressed and how this sadness affected her writing.

Throughout the book, Moi stresses Beauvoir's feeling of being Sartre's subordinate, but nowhere more than in the first chapter, tellingly entitled “Second Only to Sartre.” In this chapter, part of the larger section devoted to the differences in the educational experiences of the couple (his led to the professoriate, hers to teaching in the lycée), Moi writes convincingly of society's ambivalence toward the thinking woman. Whereas intellectuality is generally considered an asset for a man, it is often a liability for a woman, as Moi says, “under patriarchy.”

Continuing to trace the educational path for women in pre-war France, chapter two could stand alone as a short treatise on the reform of that system. With it, Moi fills in gaps left by the recent (excellent) biography of Simone de Beauvoir by Deirdre Bair. This information, none of it new but pulled together here probably for the first time, illuminates Beauvoir's self-assessment that she was less intellectual than Sartre. According to Moi, that conclusion “is the overdetermined outcome of a great number of social factors.”

Chapter three delves into the reception of Beauvoir's work and, more to the point, the tone of that reception. Although popular with mass audiences from the beginning, her work has usually received “strikingly hostile” criticism from scholars. Moi exposes this sexism, stating that many critics have preferred discrediting her personally to debating her substantively.

The purpose of chapter four is to discover why Beauvoir, who apologized for L'Invitée, believed that “to write the body is bad writing.” In this and the next chapter, Moi closely reads the 1943 novel of jealousy and murder; it is on the one hand “melodramatic,” but on the other “a victory over repression” for Beauvoir in the face of Sartre's actual infidelity. Moi uses the psychoanalytic model, as well as the tenets of existentialism, to interpret the main characters, Françoise, Pierre, and (the third side of the triangle) Xavière. Moi's reading of Sartre's Being and Nothingness against Beauvoir's L'Invitée advances her thesis in the fifth chapter. Whereas the philosophical work labels a woman's response to a seductive man “bad faith,” the work of fiction gives life to that abstraction. Moi considers both books studies in “the question of women's freedom in sexual relations,” Beauvoir's being the “more subtle” analysis.

Both chapters six and seven deal with The Second Sex (1949). Using a comparative mode, Moi first reads The Second Sex in conjunction with The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) and Being and Nothingness, and then on its own merits. She bases her distinction between Beauvoir's two works on the fact that the earlier, an embarrassment to its author, attempts to construct an ethics based on existentialism. The Second Sex, however, represents Beauvoir's original political theory. While Moi is quick to point out the “phallic metaphors” in the work, she is just as ready to praise: The Second Sex locates the conflicts in women's lives on three levels—the ontological, the social, and the level of the body—that converge in a sexual “arena where the general conflicts of women's lives are most acutely felt.”

Moi describes Beauvoir's chef d'oeuvre as a “narrative of liberation” that posits work as a “double bind” for women, who often find it essential and enslaving at the same time. Noting the harsh criticism of Beauvoir by feminists, Moi makes perhaps the most pointed statement in the book. It is without doubt directed at French feminists, who usually neglect to mention Beauvoir and The Second Sex altogether. She states that “without a political vision to sustain it, feminist theory will hit a dead end,” and she demonstrates the unmistakable contribution of Simone de Beauvoir to that vision.

The strengths of Toril Moi's book far outweigh its weaknesses. I might take issue with her stating that the Bair biography “is aimed as much at a popular as at a scholarly market,” then placing it on the “popular” instead of the “scholarly” list of studies of Beauvoir in an endnote following chapter three. But to quibble over notes would not do justice to this long-awaited monument to Beauvoir. Writing in the exuberant voice that we have come to expect from her, Toril Moi enlists even the headings to energize her text. In spite of subtitles such as “Politics and the Intellectual Woman,” “Educating Simone,” “The Importance of Being Interesting,” and “My Monster/My Mother/My Man/Myself,” Moi avoids being merely cute. Instead, she subverts familiar cultural icons in order to demonstrate Beauvoir's heretofore underestimated subversion of the patriarchal culture itself. And graduate students, take note. Throughout the study, Moi tosses out suggestions for future research, such as reading all of Beauvoir's fiction in light of Peter Brooks' theory of melodrama.

I have one last tribute: Toril Moi has made the best feminist sense out of Simone de Beauvoir's romantic life. So much irrelevant silliness has surrounded this particular topic recently that Moi's comment is particularly refreshing: “To admire … is not to worship.”

Meryl Altman (review date January 1996)

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SOURCE: Altman, Meryl. “Taking Thinking Seriously.” Women's Review of Books 13, no. 4 (January 1996): 9-10.

[In the following review, Altman surveys the project to rehabilitate Beauvoir's reputation in such works as Simone de Beauvoir.]

“But what exactly were you looking for in The Second Sex? A theory, or the voice and support of a big sister?” “What are we looking for in any philosophical text if not the theoretical support of a forerunner? Although, of course, we may not find it.”

(Hipparchia's Choice, p. 133)

The Second Sex is to Western feminism as the Bible is to Western culture: it's been an undeniably powerful text, but even the faithful can't agree about what it says. How can a single text lie behind Sherry Ortner and Gayle Rubin, Dorothy Dinnerstein and Judith Butler? But it does. Its author, more mysterious with every revelation, serves as a screen on which many Western feminists project our utopian hopes and desires, our anxieties and angers and fears. Sometimes we have yearned to see Simone de Beauvoir as half of the perfect intellectual couple, sometimes as the model of perfect rebellion and freedom, sometimes even as a lesbian foremother. We recognize, if uneasily, the authoritative status of The Second Sex, if not for us, for someone. We quote some of its best lines over and over. And, by and large, we have not read it.

Maybe this is changing. Margaret Simons' new anthology, Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir, begins simply by taking Beauvoir seriously both as an important figure within the history of philosophy and as a brilliant feminist thinker whose insights into the female condition may help us as theorists and as women at the present moment. It will be useful to all sorts of readers, from the undergraduate struggling through Book One of The Second Sex to those who have been working on Beauvoir for some time. I hope most that it will send people interested in feminist theory back to Beauvoir, back to other parts of The Second Sex besides the Introduction, and will lead some of us to stop relying on versions of her presented in polemics or coffee-table books.

Sympathetic, intelligent commentaries on The Second Sex are crucial because the book opposes, especially to the non-philosophical reader, a million opacities and resistances. In those very opacities and resistances, though, lie its survival, its ability to engender a wide variety of fructifying and divergent feminist arguments, to give us something new every time.

Five of the contributors to Feminist Interpretations—Jo-Ann Pilardi, Karen Vintges, Eleanore Holveck, Sonia Kruks and Michéle Le Doeuff—take up the vexed question of Beauvoir's relationship to existentialism and especially to the work of her companion and lover, Sartre. Beauvoir's work has been caught in a double bind: mainstream philosophers have either dismissed her as a mere footnote to and popularizer of Sartre, or else have attacked her feminism as deviant and unphilosophical; meanwhile, some feminists have seen her as writing “within” Sartre's system, have identified her with its flaws and have accused her of being male-identified.

The volume's loose consensus is that these criticisms miss the mark. Many of the contributors recognize one basic conflict between feminism and Sartrean existentialism: Sartre held that the individual consciousness has absolute freedom to choose in all situations, and created the concept of “bad faith” to explain (and criticize) the failure of individuals to do so. His system on the face of it can't account for, or even admit the existence of, oppression, domination, social control. Vintges, Holveck, Kruks and Le Doeuff (in an essay that postdates and partly reworks the argument of Hipparchia's Choice), all see Beauvoir's philosophy as based on a fundamentally different notion of individual freedom as situated within (and limited by) historical and social given reality, mediated by institutions (such as marriage) and by inequalities imposed on the individual self. Each assigns Beauvoir a different predecessor: Husserl, Hegel, Merleau-Ponty. All four agree that when Sartre wanted to move toward a more politically committed view, he discovered the weakness in his own system and learned from Beauvoir rather than the other way around. (The fact that Sartre never credited or acknowledged her innovations, and that she herself never openly claimed them, is not necessarily an obstacle to these readings.) This section will be especially helpful to those not philosophically trained, who have tended to skip the “existentialist” parts of The Second Sex or regard them as unfortunate excrescences.

A different set of reasons for elevating Beauvoir's reputation at the expense of Sartre's is offered by Kate Fullbrook and Edward Fullbrook. “Sartre's Secret Key” gives a shorter and tighter version of the argument presented in their 1994 book, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre: The Remaking of a Twentieth Century Legend (Basic Books). Fullbrook and Fullbrook argue that the ideas we know as Sartre's were actually worked out first and fully by Beauvoir in her novel L'Invitée (published in English as She Came to Stay), which Sartre read in manuscript before he ever set down the ideas that became Being and Nothingness; the two then supposedly entered into a Machiavellian conspiracy, lasting half a century, to conceal his mediocrity as a thinker and advance her ideas under cover of his name and fame.

In both the book and this article, the “discovery” of the “key” to the relationship is unfolded in a gratingly self-congratulatory manner, but the new evidence the article presents is fairly thin. Feminist philosophers, among them Kruks, Le Doeuff and Simons, have already argued in print that it was false to say Sartre had all the ideas and Beauvoir merely applied them. Fullbrook and Fullbrook have simply discovered that Beauvoir's autobiography juggles with the dates of composition of L'Invitée, making it look as if Sartre committed certain key ideas to paper before Beauvoir did. Their reading of the two works together displays a troubling disregard for the differences that literary versus theoretical presentation of an idea may make; and it seems odd that they worked not from the manuscript Sartre read, but from the published text of the novel (in English translation, yet) which obviously could have been altered after the two had discussed it.

If the Fullbrooks' contention were true, it would create a different kind of problem. Supposing Beauvoir invented Sartre's early system, is she then responsible for its flaws, and for the phobic images of women many have identified in Being and Nothingness? If not, if Sartre distorted her views so seriously, he must be admitted to have made them fully his. To be fair, it is hard to see how a proper account of collaborative thinking can really be given if we are not to take the word of the collaborators. Le Doeuff reminds us that “No one, neither woman nor man, is an absolute beginning in thought.” But ideas, for Fullbrook and Fullbrook, seem to be not “thought” but commodities, which can be shown to “belong” to one or another person.

Historically, neither Beauvoir nor Sartre has been well-served by middlebrow curiosity into their way of living (as opposed to what they thought and wrote). Philosophy is neither a black turtleneck nor a turban. One thing I like about Simons' anthology is that its contributors bear in mind that Beauvoir was embodied, situated, as a writer—yes, she did live at a certain time, did produce autobiographical writings, did sleep and work with Sartre—without subordinating all other concerns to that of finding out who the mother really was.

Jeffner Allen takes up these discomforts in an article called “a response to a letter from Peg Simons, December 1993.” Allen gives us an informal, open-ended polylogue rather than a traditional philosophical argument, incorporating the voices of friends and some personal narrative as well as poetic fragments and jokes. While noting that a number of myths about Beauvoir's life have been called into question by the posthumous publication of her letters and diaries, she points out that many of these myths were already in question. But she reminds us that any unitary view of Beauvoir we would substitute will also be an exercise in personal or political mythmaking. Allen is the only writer in this book who recognizes complex issues about authorial intention, referring to Beauvoir as “she, she and she” to remind us that no single version of anyone's life has final authority or truth. Her own style, which some may find self-indulgent, is integral to making this point.

I'm not absolutely sure where this leaves us; but it does have the good effect of decentering the discussion, freeing it from something. Allen concludes that “a woman without a movement is like a fish without a bicycle,” hoping (I think) that the question of Beauvoir's relationship to Sartre and to “existentialism” can be set aside, and that we can look instead at Beauvoir's relationships with other women, including her women readers.

Céline T. Léon, in “Beauvoir's Women: Eunuch or Male,” repeats familiar criticisms of Beauvoir's negative descriptions of the female (or feminized) body. Few issues have vexed later feminists more than this one, but where Léon finds these images “puritan,” “phallocratic” and derivative from Sartre, other contributors (Kristana Arp, Debra B. Bergoffen and Julia K. Ward) reclaim them as accurate though depressing representations of the subjective experience of being “woman” under patriarchy—representations which unfortunately are neither outdated nor superfluous.

In its final section, the anthology takes up another set of charges later feminists have made against Beauvoir: that her work was naively liberal, or even apolitical. Margaret Simons' own essay, “The Second Sex: From Marxism to Radical Feminism,” seeks to correct Beauvoir's marginalization by feminist political philosophy, pointing out that Beauvoir offered a philosophical underpinning to radical feminism in the US and to socialist feminism in the UK. Simons sees Beauvoir's work as informed by historical materialism, insisting on the class dimension of any analysis of women's position, yet also critical of Marxism's inability to account for women's separate experiences of oppression. The Second Sex also points out the inability of Freudian theory to account for differences among women, and incorporates its own critique of ethnocentricity. This might not sound like the Beauvoir familiar from attacks on her bourgeois humanism, but it is Beauvoir based on accurate analysis of what she actually wrote.

In “Beauvoir and the Algerian War: Toward a Post-Colonial Ethics,” Julien Murphy also challenges accusations of political quietism, arguing that the omission or downplaying of Beauvoir's active support for Algerian independence, by her biographer Deirdre Bair among others, falsifies the true radicalism of her life and her ideas, and leaves us with the impression that she passively followed Sartre around or, worse, left “real politics” to him. Murphy returns convincingly to the superiority of Beauvoir's philosophy to Sartre's when it came to opposing real-world injustices; shows she opposed colonialism early and often, courageously and consistently; and points to Beauvoir's analysis of her own class and race privilege in her essays on Algeria and […] her autobiographical writing, which she began during the Algerian conflict.

None of this will be at all surprising to those who have read Beauvoir carefully and whole. But how many have done that? I asked a historian friend of mine what she thought of Beauvoir; she had never read The Second Sex, because she had gathered from Elizabeth Spelman's work that Beauvoir's analyses were exclusionary, and therefore outdated and irrelevant to her own work on black women. As should be clear by now, I think this is a shame.

While it is crucial to re-establish Beauvoir's credentials as a philosopher, this was not all she was. Toril Moi's book, Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman, begins to provide a lucid and sympathetic account of the whole Beauvoir “text,” including her life, her autobiographical writings published and unpublished and her fiction, as well as her more theoretical writing. Moi calls her effort a “personal genealogy” rather than a biography; this enables her to pay attention to the difference genre makes, to examine Beauvoir's different presentations of similar ideas and themes in different writings, without singling out one set of writings as the discourse of Truth. Those who know Moi only through her rather tendentious earlier book, Sexual/Textual Politics, may be pleasantly surprised to come upon this sustained work of careful scholarship, textually sensitive, attentive to complexities and concerned mainly to open up, rather than close down, interpretation.

For Moi, “intellectual woman” means “any woman who has ever taken herself seriously as a thinker, especially in an educational context”; it comes also to mean “a woman who refuses to accept the traditional patriarchal division between mind and body, sense and seduction.” Moi reads Beauvoir's ambiguous deference to Sartre, her statement that he, not she, is the true philosopher, in the context of a wealth of historical detail about the French educational system and the French literary establishment which, she reminds us, still disparages Beauvoir as a naive “shopgirl” or an unattractive blue-stocking. It may annoy or discourage us to have to point out that critics discredit a woman thinker by “personaliz[ing] the issues, reduc[ing] the book to the woman,” that “to show any sign of self-satisfaction is [considered] a bad thing in a woman,” that the reception history of Beauvoir's writing still shows her caught within the double bind she herself identified nearly fifty years ago—the text, or the woman, is either too feminine, not feminine enough, or, absurdly, both. It is nonetheless necessary to keep making these points, and I see it as a good sign that Moi's mastery of “high theory” has not blinded her to them; her self-identification as a materialist may explain why.

The true strength of the book is in the individual readings, which are difficult to summarize. I particularly like her reading of L'Invitée as a melodramatic novel in the same way that existentialism is a melodramatic philosophy. Moi's approach to the troubling images of female sexuality in The Second Sex is to show that they rest on a series of unexamined metaphors, and that we may dislike them without having to discard the entire analysis within which they are embedded. Her belief in the Freudian (and the lit crit) doctrine of overdetermination enables her to recognize long-lasting psychoanalytic themes in Beauvoir's life, such as the need to free herself from an engulfing mother by over-idealizing male discourse, or the “dark side” of oscillation between depression and irrational joy, without reducing all Beauvoir's work (or all Sartre's) to a feeble shadow of her “obsessions.”

Moi brilliantly explains Beauvoir's problematic speaking stance in The Second Sex—what many feminists have criticized as “writing like a man”—as “investigating her own marginality from a position of centrality.” This struck a real chord for me. Isn't that where all feminist intellectuals are, even now? When I, who have a job, stand up to say that women are being denied jobs; when I speak and write to say that women are being silenced? It's easy enough for someone to attack me as a liar or a hysteric or as living in the past. This enemy wants me to choose between erasing my own (atypical) experience of the center and erasing what I am privileged to know about the experience of marginality, other women's but also in other contexts my own. My best choice may be (like Beauvoir?) to refuse to choose.

The most surprising aspect of Moi's book is her sympathy for existentialism as the groundwork for Beauvoir's feminism and indeed our own. She sees the phenomenological doctrine of “the personal is philosophical”—which we can see in Sartre's excitement at discovering that one can make a philosophy out of a glass of beer, in the couple's attention to what people say in cafes, in Merleau-Ponty's doctrine of experience as embodied—as instigating and legitimating the attention to the lived experience of women that became crucial to formation of the notion that the personal was political. Moi sees the existentialist doctrine that consciousness is free—that however oppressive our situation may be, we have the choice whether to accept and embrace it or to refuse and resist it—as enabling Beauvoir to envision narratives of liberation, potential equality and hope. These narratives, Moi shows, were what have made The Second Sex a work of empowerment for generations of feminists:

Historically, narratives of freedom have been remarkably effective in producing social change; we abandon them at our peril. To raise the question of liberation in a postmodern intellectual field, however, is immediately to expose oneself to accusations of teleology and other metaphysical crimes: no wonder many feminists are rapidly losing faith in the future of feminism. But to deprive feminism of its utopias is to depoliticize it at a stroke: without a political vision to sustain it, feminist theory will hit a dead end.

(p. 213)

Existentialism has fallen into disfavor with mainstream American philosophy departments; indeed, one ironic precondition for the proper recognition of Beauvoir's contributions may be that Sartre's star seems to have definitively set (fewer people than I would like may be reading to the end of The Second Sex, but who is even assigning Being and Nothingness?). Still, new generations of readers continue to find something in Sartre and Camus, perhaps the same thing they find in Kurt Cobain: they give voice to the hopelessness and sense of absurdity many young people observe about the traditional bourgeois life they are on the threshold of entering. It may even be that feminism and other radical movements can't do without some notion of bad faith or false consciousness, though this idea has fallen into disrepute: if one can't change the world by changing oneself, if one can't begin to change both by thinking about them differently, what on earth do people like me think we're doing when we teach women's studies?

Michele Le Doeuff's Hipparchia's Choice is the earliest chronologically of these three books, but it remains my favorite, for its common sense, its wit and the breadth of its vision. Informally ordered yet tightly argued, it ranges from brief close readings of Aristotle and Husserl to investigation of local 1970s French campaigns for reproductive rights and educational equality, with lengthy (but never self-indulgent) biographical and autobiographical digressions, always in search of the solid ground of shared political realism. Le Doeuff takes on many of the same issues discussed in the other books, and other writers, especially Toril Moi, signal their deep indebtedness to her.

At the heart of the book is a thorough investigation of Sartre's sexism, and of Beauvoir's relation to it. Le Doeuff's main concern is to use Beauvoir and Sartre as a paradigm case to open up some larger issues. Stated simply: what use, if any, is philosophy to feminism, and to women generally? “Philosophy is like military life: either you think it is a good thing, and in that case you should be pleased to see women in West Point and the other military academies, or you think it despicable and support conscientious objectors.” Moving deftly around in the Western philosophical tradition from the pre-Socratics to the post-Derrideans, Le Doeuff argues that “where women are concerned the learned utter, and institutions let them utter, words which fall clearly below their own usual standards of validation.” “Philosophy” has affirmed its own importance and defined its project by creating then despising that which is not philosophy, not rationality, not “thought,” inventing an Other which has been (at various times) slaves, the empirical sciences, the vulgar political sphere, even animals, but most especially women. The logical weak point of any philosophical system, Le Doeuff suggests, can often be found precisely in these places where woman's essential otherness is opaquely and peremptorily invoked (Sartre is an extended example of this, but far from the only one). Feminists can do philosophy a service in pointing these places out—but should we bother?

Le Doeuff answers yes to this, not through an extended theoretical self-justification but by reminding us simply that “the exercise of thought is sometimes a very joyful, or even ordinarily pleasant, activity.” If male philosophers have often deliberately sought to keep women from this exercise, by explicit ban, open ridicule and more subtle means (as in Beauvoir's case), need we acquiesce?

Le Doeuff shows how she and others (including Beauvoir) have been nonetheless drawn to philosophy because it seemed to promise the possibility of thinking and rethinking everything, a discourse of rational human beings in principle open to all, a field where “nothing goes without saying” and every question, however counterintuitive (or even silly) can and should be asked, an answer can be demanded, and appeals to authority or “what has always been” are in principle ruled out. Like Moi, Le Doeuff is concerned to reclaim an ethical space for intellectual women. “For two centuries a feminist has been a woman who does not leave others to think for her, whether it be a question simply of thinking or, more particularly, thinking about the feminine condition or what it should be.”

Feminist theory has done a fairly good job recently of showing that the emperor of Western rationality isn't wearing any clothes; his phallus, unshielded by “objectivity,” is protruding. But have we done as good a job of evolving new ways to read and argue with one another? Not all interactions between feminism and philosophy have been productive, Le Doeuff finds.

It is hard to gain a clear idea of the right way to speak as a feminist woman philosopher, except on some specific questions. On the other hand unfortunate ways of mixing the salt of philosophy with feminism are only too obvious. For the most common philosophical practice comes down to establishing that one is wrong to speak, whatever one says.

(p. 17)

She attacks the woolly-headed alliance between “hyperphilosophism”—whereby feminists deconstruct our own position and terms to the point that we deprive our movement of a language and of the ground to stand on—and the dismissal of reason itself as male and therefore suspect. This alliance, Le Doeuff argues, has led to a fabulous silence, to wheel-spinning complaints about the death of philosophy, and to a disjunction between intellectual feminism and the feminism of the streets. Her chief objection to the bald statement that philosophical rationality is male is not that it is untrue—though she points out that it has not been proved, and asks what it can possibly mean—but rather that having said it one is finished, unable to say anything else, since no conceivable position could be created independent of existing ones.

I can do no more here than suggest the richness of Hipparchia's Choice, which has been unjustly neglected in the States (I came upon it by accident); it should be read by everyone, not just Beauvoir scholars. The books is infused with the same spirit of hope that Moi praised in Beauvoir. In evaluating Beauvoir's contribution to a feminist movement that had not yet begun when The Second Sex appeared, Le Doeuff writes:

A book which puts an end to loneliness, which teaches people to see, has greater and more immediate importance than all the manifestos in the world … A real book offers … the possibility of meeting a voice, an intelligence and a particular kind of generosity. Simone de Beauvoir taught young women that we were to trust ourselves and to send the ball back—we who were too often surrounded by cruel words and glances quick to censure.

(p. 55)

The Second Sex can still put an end to the loneliness of the intellectual woman. Hipparchia's Choice can do it, too.

Margaret Atack (review date April 1996)

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SOURCE: Atack, Margaret. Review of Simone de Beauvoir, by Toril Moi. Modern Language Review 91, no. 2 (April 1996): 485-86.

[In the following review, Atack assesses the strengths of Simone de Beauvoir.]

Although the corpus devoted to her work is not large compared to that of Sartre or Camus, Simone de Beauvoir has recently been gaining the critical attention she deserves as writer and philosopher. Toril Moi's book [Simone de Beauvoir] is particularly orientated towards the latter dimension, but the interdisciplinary framework she is mobilizing also encompasses the autobiography, some of the fiction, and the life. Her aim is to analyse how Beauvoir came to be ‘the emblematic intellectual woman of the twentieth century’ (p. 1). Moi argues that she was able to produce Le Deuxième Sexe as a result of being placed at the centre of a unique configuration of discourses and situations and that the crucial moment was her realization that she was an intellectual woman. Moi traces the forging of this identity through Beauvoir's personal and sociological history, paying particular attention to the career trajectory of agrégation, teacher, and writer, and the relationships with Sartre and her parents. Like Michele Le Doeuff in her pathbreaking L'Etude et le rouet (1989), Moi is concerned both to take Beauvoir seriously as an important thinker and to theorize her limitations, and is fascinated by what she calls the ‘epistemological primal scene’ in the Luxembourg Gardens, when Beauvoir recognizes Sartre's superiority as a philosopher. For Moi, this pattern of female subordination to the male is revealed across the biographical and philosophical discourses in a series of unconscious blind spots. The figure of the rational if passionate individual that Beauvoir elaborates in her autobiography tends to crumble under the pressures of sociology (Bourdieu's concepts of habitus, intellectual field, and cultural capital being the key ones here), psychoanalysis, and rhetorical analysis. While Moi notes, in order to deplore it, the frequency with which Beauvoir is often subject to a kind of covert dismissal, being praised in general terms yet attacked for specific ideas and perspectives, and points to the way Beauvoir is effectively presented as a ‘false intellectual’ by being shown to be unconscious of the effects of her own discourse, she herself suggests Beauvoir is ‘deeply unaware of the effects of her own rhetoric’; her philosophical blind spot in relation to her idealization of the male finds its counterparts in the myth of her unity with Sartre being the ‘blind spot of her memoirs’, and the blind spot of the repression of her own marginality as a woman. Moi's originality is to argue that Beauvoir's strengths are in fact born of these contradictions; Le Deuxième Sexe is the product of her uneasy position as both central and marginal, allowing her to analyse marginality from a position of centrality, and to break with philosophy in favour of sociology. None the less, this poses a conundrum for feminist philosophy. If it is argued that in Le Deuxième Sexe Beauvoir idealizes the male, following Sartre in mapping transcendence and immanence onto masculine and feminine sexualities, then Le Deuxième Sexe may have immense historical value, but it is difficult to see what philosophical value it may have for feminism.

While the argumentation and scope of analysis are impressive, reservations about various kinds of contextualization should be mentioned. One understands the materialist basis of the analysis which wishes to give full weight to the effects of gender on intellectual identity, and Moi is writing against the existence of an extensive literature on intellectuals that has notoriously ignored women. But the definition of an intellectual woman as ‘any woman who has ever taken herself seriously as a thinker, particularly in an educational context’ is not its strongest point. This voluntarist definition fails to situate Beauvoir in relation to the debate on the nature of the intellectual, Republicanism, universalism, and sites of intellectual power, and effectively leaves the equation of intellectual, masculine, and universal undisturbed. To consider Beauvoir as intellectual, rather than as intellectual woman, would force these issues on to the agenda, and perhaps that is the next stage. Symptomatic of this is the little account given to Les Temps modernes, despite the documented importance of its political and philosophical project of synthetic anthropology to an understanding of Le Deuxième Sexe. Rather traditionally, in view of the role of journals in the configuration of the intellectual in post-war France, Beauvoir is seen primarily in relation to her books, while she was very intensively involved with other sites of intellectual power. Furthermore, these contexts would emphasize Lacan's immense debt to Sartre and undermine some of the oppositions between existentialist and Lacanian theories of consciousness operating here. From a different cultural generation, the apparent non-recognition of the Hari-kiri tag (‘journal bête et méchant’) in the comment ‘Simone de Beauvoir est bête … et méchante’ is another case in point.

In addition to Le Deuxième Sexe, which is at the heart of the book, there are fine pages on L'Invitée and the ‘Writing of Depression’. This complex and thought-provoking study is an important contribution to Beauvoir studies.

Elizabeth Fallaize (review date April 1996)

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SOURCE: Fallaize, Elizabeth. Review of Simone de Beauvoir, by Toril Moi. French Studies 50, no. 2 (April 1996): 230-31.

[In the following review, Fallaize comments on the historical significance of Simone de Beauvoir in terms of its subject and its analysis.]

This eagerly-awaited book [Simone de Beauvoir] comes as a beacon in Beauvoir studies, presenting a forceful case for Beauvoir as the greatest feminist theorist of our century whilst simultaneously identifying in her intellectual and emotional trajectory a series of emblematic dilemmas which patriarchy continues to pose to intellectual women today. Thus in an illuminating investigation of the making of Simone de Beauvoir, Moi shows how Beauvoir's speaking position was constrained by the educational capital it was open to her to amass, and demonstrates why Beauvoir needed her fantasy of unity with Sartre. The question which Angela Carter asked—why ‘a nice girl like Simone wasted her time sucking up to a boring old fart like J. P.’ (p. 253)—thus receives a rather more satisfactory answer than hitherto. As a female philosophy agrégée with close contacts with the male elite Normaliens, Beauvoir was an exceptional woman but a marginalized intellectual. In Le Deuxième Sexe she was thus in the curious position of ‘investigating her own marginality from a position of centrality’ (p. 68). The tension produced by the conflict between Beauvoir's belief in her own legitimacy and her intermittent awareness of her actual marginalization deeply marks Beauvoir's work, Moi argues, and accounts for much of the hostility of the reception accorded to it. What Beauvoir actually offers in Le Deuxième Sexe, for Moi, is a ‘strong theory of human agency and a positive as well as a negative concept of freedom’ (p. 153). Despite the absence of any real discussion of the relationship between the anatomical and the social (a gap which Moi suggests could have been plugged by a less diffident use of Lacan) Beauvoir nevertheless manages to develop a strikingly original theory of the construction of female subjectivity under patriarchy. Moi is frank about the other problems that have touched some feminist raw nerves—the obsessive, even sexist, sexualization of some of the terminology deployed, the wild overestimation of masculinity, the ease with which Beauvoir herself becomes a victim of the very patriarchal categories she describes. But, as Moi points out, the women readers who were first inspired by Le Deuxième Sexe were drawn in by a sustaining Utopian vision which Moi argues could today offer a way out of the dead ends of identity politics. The final section of the book, though full of insights, is the least satisfactory one: after reviewing the history of Beauvoir's cycles of anxiety and depression, exacerbated by her commitment to Sartre, Moi claims that Beauvoir produces her best writing in those texts where she forced herself to confront her sources of pain. This argument is not well supported, although the earlier extremely persuasive reading of L'Invitée in which the final murder becomes the killing of a fantasmatic maternal monster shows us what an attentive reader of Beauvoir Moi can be. This is a deeply original and stimulating book, of significance not only as a leap forward for Beauvoir studies and for feminist enquiry but as a model of how the critic can apprehend a subject whose life and legend are so towering as to threaten the critical enterprise itself. Toril Moi succeeds brilliantly in this challenge.

M. Carmela Epright and Laura Hengehold (review date fall 1996)

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SOURCE: Epright, Carmela M., and Laura Hengehold. Review of Simone de Beauvoir, by Toril Moi. NWSA Journal 8, no. 3 (fall 1996): 177-80.

[In the following review, Epright and Hengehold evaluate Simone de Beauvoir in the context of rehabilitating Beauvoir's critical reputation.]

Until very recently, studies of Simone de Beauvoir have presented the French thinker either as the lifelong confidant, editor, and companion of Jean-Paul Sartre or as an early (and, some argue, dated and privileged) feminist and author of The Second Sex. Although Beauvoir's own philosophical writings include two monographs and numerous essays, articles, and letters, her contribution to the discipline has largely been ignored or dismissed as a mere footnote to Sartrean existentialism. Her novels, though immensely popular, have only begun to be approached in the same scholarly manner as the literary works of her male existentialist comrades.

Several factors, however, have contributed to a resurgence of philosophical and feminist interest in Beauvoir's work. Much of Beauvoir's correspondence with Sartre and some of her personal notebooks have been released by her adopted daughter, Sylvie le Bon de Beauvoir. The publication of this material, as well as the publication of some of Sartre's own letters and notebooks, has facilitated new research into the intellectual and emotional character of the couple's partnership. In addition, Beauvoir's work on ethics and embodiment makes a unique contribution to conversations within feminist theory, phenomenological and postphenomenological metaphysics, and philosophical ethics. For instance, the existentialist ethic carved out by Beauvoir in The Ethics of Ambiguity and Pyrrhus et Cineas may have a significant role to play in the ongoing debate between proponents and critics of impartialism. Finally, the history of feminist reception and reaction to Beauvoir's work promises valuable insights into the psychology and politics of intergenerational conflict between women.

Toril Moi's Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman and Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir, edited by Margaret Simons, are two outstanding examples of this recent surge in Beauvoir scholarship. Both books portray Beauvoir as a figure who can be—indeed, must be—read, evaluated, and taken seriously as a thinker in her own right, not as a mere disciple of Sartre. Both of these works situate Beauvoir squarely within the literary and philosophical tradition, as a writer responding to such thinkers as Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty, and as a theorist who herself influenced phenomenology, feminist theory, cultural studies, and moral theory.

Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir represents the first anthology dedicated exclusively to Beauvoir research. The fourteen articles in this collection can be divided roughly into three sections, dealing respectively with Beauvoir's relation to the philosophical tradition, her views on embodiment and sexuality, and her contributions to political theory and practice.

Jo-Ann Pilardi's catalogue of the feminist critiques leveled at The Second Sex during the 1980s and '90s provides an excellent background for the rest of this collection, since many of the controversies that she addresses are taken up by later articles in the volume. Such issues include the relation of The Second Sex to Sartrean existentialism; the charge that Beauvoir's work is “masculinist” (that it privileges traditionally male projects and activities); Beauvoir's positions on motherhood, the body, and female eroticism, especially lesbian sexuality; the tension between Beauvoir's commitments to socialism and existentialism; and finally, arguments that The Second Sex is ethnocentric and class-bound.

In the first part of the book, Karen Vintges, Eleanor Holveck, Michele le Doeuff and Sonia Kruks challenge the canonical view of Beauvoir as a Sartrean and explore her unique use of themes from Hegel, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty. Intrigued by various anomalies in Beauvoir's representations of her relationship with Sartre, and using evidence from Sartre's War Diaries, Kate and Edward Fullbrook make the challenging (if not entirely convincing) argument that it was in fact Beauvoir's novel She Came to Stay that provided the impetus for the philosophical system carved out by Sartre in Being and Nothingness.

Some of the most interesting essays in this collection, linking Beauvoir to current feminist work in continental metaphysics and ethics, are those dealing with her views on the body and sexuality. Beauvoir has long been thought to have an essentially negative view of feminine embodiment and sexuality or to subscribe to Sartre's general characterization of the female body as an obstacle to transcendence. In this tradition, Celine Leon regards Beauvoir's ambivalence towards femininity as a sign of hostility toward positive sexual difference. Kristina Arp, by contrast, traces this ambivalence to Merleau-Ponty's conception of embodiment as a general existential structure making possible both freedom and enslavement. Finally, Julie Ward focuses on the social context that imposes multiple and sometimes contradictory meanings upon the female body in patriarchal society.

Debra Berghoffen and Barbara Klaw, likewise, depict a Beauvoir of intense interest to students of ethics and sexuality. Berghoffen reads the essay “Must We Burn Sade?” as a philosophical meditation on the ethics of sexuality and a continuation of certain themes developed in The Ethics of Ambiguity. “Sexuality in Beauvoir's Les Mandarins” views the characters of Beauvoir's novels as examples of various emotional and philosophical perspectives on feminine sexuality, from whose literary encounters the reader is expected to draw philosophical conclusions. Finally, Jeffner Allen's uniquely literary “response to a letter to Peg Simons, December 1993” examines Beauvoir's “myth-making activities,” including the myths that she herself promoted regarding her heterosexuality.

The final chapters in this collection address the relationship between Beauvoir's ideas and their political application. Margaret Simons argues that The Second Sex lay the foundations for the American radical feminism of the 1960s. In “Beauvoir and the Algerian War,” Julien Murphy situates the development of Beauvoir's ethical thought in the context of her own efforts to come to terms with the racial and political importance of her own situation as a French citizen. Murphy's essay is significant insofar as it focuses on the dialectical development of Beauvoir's ethical thought through her political experiences, where many commentators have read her activism as secondary to her literary and philosophical commitments.

Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman is not as wide-ranging as Simons's collection, though it addresses many of the same historical and existential issues. Neither a conventional biography nor a complete critical analysis of Beauvoir's work, Moi's book treats Beauvoir's life as a meditation on the emotional significance that writing holds for female students of philosophy, and the philosophical significance of emotional life for philosophers in general and women philosophers in particular. Focusing on three biographical “scenes,” Moi's narrative presents Beauvoir's intellectual rivalry with Sartre, her emotional and sexual partnerships, and her profound feeling of isolation from her mother (and the security that her mother's lifestyle promised to aging women) as philosophical problems whose possible solutions are illustrated by her life choices and her published work.

Moi's decision to treat Beauvoir's life as a single text suggests a sort of existentialist model for how contemporary feminists and feminist philosophers might think of their own lives as political, sexual, and philosophical “experiments in living.” One of the most exciting aspects of this book is its success in portraying the intellectual significance that many young feminist women still find in the emotional paradoxes of their own lives—paradoxes regarding the compatibility of sexual commitment and conceptual exploration, the fear of loneliness, the relationship between friendship and love, the delicate balance between challenging oneself and opening oneself to emotional or intellectual violence. The reader is also encouraged to reflect on the ways in which commitment to philosophy often results as much from female relationships as from the intellectual power of a masculinist culture or individual male colleagues and teachers.

These considerations, as Jeffner Allen's essay in the Simons collection also suggests, lead one back to the larger theoretical implications of Beauvoir's hitherto unacknowledged lesbianism. Both works make an important contribution to feminist scholarship by grounding contemporary questions regarding the heterosexuality or homosexuality of philosophical practice in the writing of feminist philosophy's own “mother.” They also call us to reflect upon the ways in which writing, philosophical or literary, mediates relationships between women of different generations. Moi characterizes her method in Making of an Intellectual Woman as genealogy, a term ordinarily associated with Foucault. This term, however, implicitly demonstrates the common commitment to micro-politics—the political and philosophical significance of everyday life—that Foucault and later poststructuralist political thinkers, including feminist philosophers, share with Beauvoir despite their skepticism regarding Sartre and their distance from certain forms of Marxism. Thus, just as these two texts give Beauvoir a philosophical future “beyond existentialism,” they also attempt to bridge the theoretical gaps that sometimes divide older and younger feminists, building “genealogy” of a different sort.

Catherine R. Montfort (review date October 1996)

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SOURCE: Montfort, Catherine R. Review of Simone de Beauvoir, by Toril Moi. French Review 70, no. 1 (October 1996): 125-26.

[In the following review, Montfort provides a brief overview of the three main subsections of Moi's Simone de Beauvoir, concluding that the book is a powerful and significant contribution to feminist cultural history.]

The normal posthumous reevaluation of the work of Simone de Beauvoir has been eagerly anticipated, in part because of startling new facts about her private life unveiled in her Journal de Guerre, her Lettres à Sartre (1990), and Bianca Lamblin's Mémoires d'une jeune fille dérangée (1993). Lynne Kaufman's latest play, Shooting Simone is a case in point, in which a young female American reporter soon discovers that her idealized picture of Beauvoir does not correspond to reality.

Toril Moi's fascinating new book [Simone de Beauvoir] attempts to capture Beauvoir's unique position in our century. While Moi takes into account both Beauvoir's life and her writing, the subtitle of the book stresses that she sees Beauvoir as a distillation of different discourses and determinants. Consequently Moi's analysis relies on reception studies, the sociology of culture, philosophical analysis, psychoanalytic inquiry and feminist theory.

The book is divided into three parts, each focusing on a textual moment in Beauvoir's work. In Part I, the textual moment is the 1929 conversation between Sartre and Beauvoir in which Beauvoir's philosophical ideas are discussed in the Luxembourg gardens. This conversation, described in Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée, casts Sartre as Beauvoir's superior both intellectually and philosophically. Moi explores Beauvoir's speaking position as represented in her writing in 1958, and explains Beauvoir's perception of being “second to Sartre” as a compromise between the wish to fascinate as a woman and the wish to fascinate as an intellectual—a woman should not be perceived as superior. Moi argues convincingly that Beauvoir's account of Sartre's superiority is unconvincing. After all, in 1929, Beauvoir was only twenty-one and would soon become the youngest agrégée in philosophy in France. Moi also argues that Beauvoir's conclusion about her own intellectual ability is the result of a number of factors—social class, gender, religion and location of birth. She then explores the striking hostility of Beauvoir's critics, and describes the difficulty Beauvoir experienced in being taken seriously. Critics reduced her texts to her own persona and described her politics and philosophy as mere displacements of the personal or as effects of her personal relationship to Sartre.

In Part II, Moi examines Beauvoir's representations of the conflicts and contradictions confronting an intellectual woman in mid-century France. The textual moment is a conversation with Sartre in 1946 during which Beauvoir came to realize that the intellectual consequences of being born a woman are different from those if one is born a man. Moi begins by focusing on Beauvoir's philosophical and psychological underpinnings in L'Invitée. Her psychoanalytic inquiry makes for suspenseful reading as she investigates why Françoise after going through the illusion of communion with Pierre feels the need to assert her independence from Xavière by killing her. Moi makes a case that the killing of Xavière (seen as a fantasmatic mother) is the raison d'être of the novel. She also investigates Sartre's and Beauvoir's differences in their understanding of women's position. After analyzing passages in Being and Nothingness and in L'Invitée, she concludes that in the arena of women's freedom, Beauvoir's analysis is more subtle than Sartre's. Moi then turns to The Second Sex and underlines its paradox: The most antipatriarchal text of the century reads as if it were written by a dutiful daughter all too eager to please her father. Nevertheless, she reminds the reader of its startling originality in 1949 when women issues were not central to the political agendas of any major party nor was there an established women's movement.

In Part III, Moi chooses as her textual moment the end of La Force des choses when Beauvoir expresses feeling of sadness, emptiness and disappointment which she attributes to old age. This is fascinating reading as Moi turns to Beauvoir's autobiographies, letters and diaries to uncover the reason for Beauvoir's depression—whether it is Sartre's pacts with her (the pact of freedom and the pact of openness), her own ‘schizophrenia,’ or her relationships with other women. She shows that Beauvoir does her best writing when she faces separation and depression.

Moi concludes on a note of admiration for a pioneer woman who opened intellectual doors for women, but is quick to add that her admiration is not worship. This book is a rich and powerful contribution to the cultural history of feminism in the late twentieth century—a must read.

Rey Chow (essay date fall 1999-2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12786

SOURCE: Chow, Rey. “When Whiteness Feminizes … : Some Consequences of a Supplementary Logic.” Differences 11, no. 3 (fall 1999-2000): 137-68.

[In the following essay, Chow analyzes the effects of the rhetorical strategies used in Sexual/Textual Politics on the book's premises.]


Since the introduction of poststructuralist theory into the English-speaking academic world, a point of tension between feminists sympathetic toward poststructuralism and feminists hostile toward it has been the controversy over the status of the term “woman” in representational politics. Whereas for Anglo-American feminist critics, the individual woman, woman author, or woman critic continues to be understood in terms of the agency derived from the philosophical foundation of individualism, of the gendered person as an ultimate reality, the pivot of French poststructuralism has been precisely to put such foundationalist thinking into question through theories of language, text, signification, and subject, so that what is hitherto considered as an irrefutable certainty, including the individual self, now becomes known more often as a referent, a point in signification that is always “en procès”—that is, constantly disrupted, deferred, dislocated, postponed, if not altogether dissolved. This bifurcation between “Anglo-American” and “French” forms the basis of Toril Moi's 1985 bestseller, Sexual/Textual Politics. Moi, whose critical sympathies lie with the French, presents Anglo-American feminist critical practice in terms of an unconscious adherence to a Lukácsian realism and humanism that remain securely inscribed within patriarchal ideology (4-7). Her conclusion about American feminist literary critics such as Elaine Showalter, Kate Millet, Myra Jehlen, Susan Gubar, Sandra Gilbert, Annette Kolodny, and others is a devastating one. To be sure, she argues, these critics are politicizing texts through readings of sexuality—but theirs is a naïve politics that leaves patriarchal aesthetics entirely intact (69). In other words, while she gives Anglo-American feminist criticism ample credit for its overt political stance, Moi charges that this sexual politics is far from being “political enough”:

The radically new impact of feminist criticism is to be found not at the level of theory or methodology, but at the level of politics. Feminists have politicized existing critical methods and approaches. If feminist criticism has subverted established critical judgements it is because of its radically new emphasis on sexual politics. …

The central paradox of Anglo-American feminist criticism is thus that despite its often strong, explicit political engagement, it is in the end not quite political enough; not in the sense that it fails to go far enough along the political spectrum, but in the sense that its radical analysis of sexual politics still remains entangled with depoliticizing theoretical paradigms.

(87-88; emphases in the original)

For these reasons, Moi needs to insert the word “textual” in her book title in order to emphasize the importance of deconstructing linguistic structures alongside a sexual politics. Reading her analyses, one has the impression that textual politics is the more radically political because that is where essentialism, including the essentialism of the term “woman,” can be properly confronted and undone. In particular, Moi is taken with the manner in which Julia Kristeva brings attention to the materiality of textual production. From Kristeva, Moi tells us, we learn that the subject position (it is no longer radical enough to talk of the self or the individual) is what indicates revolutionary potential (12).

In retrospect, Moi's discussion is interesting not least because it is an early example, within the realm of contemporary feminist studies, of an attempt to take note of cultural difference (“Anglo-American,” “French,” “Norwegian”)—indeed to foreground culture itself as having an indismissable bearing on critical practices. Yet this astute awareness of cultural difference—which in her readings translates into a critique of essentialism and a valorization of poststructuralist textual politics—does not necessarily save Moi herself from falling into certain kinds of essentialist pitfalls. In this regard it is necessary to recognize the rhetorical strategies she adopts.

Chief of these strategies is Moi's attempt to dichotomize politics and textuality. As I will go on to demonstrate in the rest of this essay, such a dichotomy is a fallacious one. Among other things, it tends to ignore completely the implications of race—in particular, of whiteness as social power—in discourses about sexuality and femininity. In Moi's text, however, this dichotomy serves important tactical purposes. It enables her to give acknowledgment to the accomplishments of Anglo-American feminist critics exclusively in terms of their politics, and to argue by the same gesture that these critics have not dealt at all with the textuality of their texts. Quickly, then, what looks at first like a straightforward differentiation turns into a specific value judgment. Accordingly, politics, which is what makes Anglo-American feminist critics Anglo-American, is simple-minded and unsophisticated—even though it is all that they are capable of. As Deborah E. McDowell points out, this category of “Anglo-American” also includes black and lesbian women: “lesbian and/or black feminist criticism have presented exactly the same methodological and theoretical problems as the rest of Anglo-American feminist criticism.” “This is not to say that black and lesbian criticism have no … importance”; rather, that importance, like that of the rest of Anglo-American feminist criticism, is to be found “not at the level of theory or methodology, but at the level of politics” (Moi 86, 87, emphases in the original; quoted with slight modifications in McDowell 161). By contrast, the French theorists are much more supple in the manners in which they deal with texts. But instead of confining them to the “text” half of her divided world (a division she herself proposes), Moi suggests that what they are doing is radically “political” as well, so that the French—and Frenchness—are, strictly speaking, inhabiting both sides of the divided world as women who not only know how to read texts but also how to do politics. As an account not simply of varied feminist practices but also of cultural difference, Moi's discussion presents Anglo-American feminists as heavy-footed country bumpkins who are trapped in their parochial women's worlds (who just want to proclaim “woman” everywhere), and the French as suave and nimble cosmopolitans because they know how to read. In terms of their respective performances, the Anglo-Americans are second-rate only even when they do their best; the French, on the other hand, are already doing revolutionary politics without necessarily even trying (as they are just paying attention to the marginality and dissidence of texts).

By bifurcating the entire question of women critics' relationship to texts in this manner, Moi inadvertently introduces a much larger problem—what might be called the feminization of culture. Taken in the broadest sense, this phrase may simply refer to a cultural process in which femininity itself becomes visible and active as an agent and producer of knowledge, yet this is exactly where the controversy begins. Indeed, the debate that revolves around Ann Douglas's book of 1977, The Feminization of American Culture, takes this issue of the relationship between women and culture as its central focus. Douglas, we recall, associates feminization with the rise of mass culture and with the conspicuous consumption habits of American society since the early nineteenth century. For her, feminization means emasculation; a culture feminized is thus a culture in demise, weakened in comparison with its previous tough—that is, manly—state. The claims made by second-wave feminism in the United States in the 1970s and the 1980s (the feminism whose proponents include many of the authors that Moi critiques in her book)1 were thus explicitly or implicitly aimed at Douglas's unsympathetic view of women and mass culture.2 Rather than the demise of culture, the tenets of second-wave feminism adamantly affirmed an independent women's tradition and genealogy, demonstrating that despite the discrimination they experienced historically in Western societies, women were creative, imaginative, and as capable of authorship as men. The feminization of culture, thus, became a feminist revision of culture, specializing in bringing women from the margins of history to the center of academic attention. Ironically, it is the overtly tough stance taken by feminists during this period, a stance that was aimed at asserting women's difference from, as well as equality with, men, that becomes in Moi's reading a sign that these second-wave feminists are political naïfs mired in patriarchal aesthetics. We thus arrive at a paradox: by focusing on “woman,” Anglo-American feminists are, by the criteria of one account (Douglas), furthering the emasculation of culture; yet by those of another (Moi), they are becoming too much like men.

The paradox does not end here. In an essay called “Mass Culture as Woman,” Andreas Huyssen gives our topic yet another twist by arguing that the very equation of femininity with lowbrow culture, mediocrity, and leisurely consumption—in other words, precisely what Douglas has called the feminization of culture—is characteristic of high modernism with its interest in promoting “high art.” What Douglas characterizes, by way of the twosome man-woman, as the feminization of culture, is hence recast by Huyssen as a socio-aesthetic move, in which the debasement of “woman” is part and parcel of a constructed relation between high art and mass culture that is aimed at preserving the interests of high modernism, which nonetheless is dependent on mass culture as its hidden subtext. Moreover, once the use of “woman” is historicized in this manner, Huyssen is able to reveal how high modernist art often derives its authority not so much from radical hedonism (as it would like us to believe) but rather from a kind of puritanism, one that can be said to be based on the reality principle rather than the pleasure principle:

The autonomy of the modernist art work, after all, is always the result of a resistance, an abstention, and a suppression—resistance to the seductive lure of mass culture, abstention from the pleasure of trying to please a larger audience, suppression of everything that might be threatening to the rigorous demands of being modern and at the edge of time. There seem to be fairly obvious homologies between this modernist insistence on purity and autonomy in art, Freud's privileging of the ego over the id and his insistence on stable, if flexible, ego boundaries, and Marx's privileging of production over consumption. The lure of mass culture, after all, has traditionally been described as the threat of losing oneself in dreams and delusions and of merely consuming rather than producing. Thus, despite its undeniable adversary stance toward bourgeois society, the modernist aesthetic and its rigorous work ethic as described here seem in some fundamental way to be located also on the side of that society's reality principle, rather than on that of the pleasure principle. It is to this fact that we owe some of the greatest works of modernism, but the greatness of these works cannot be separated from the often one-dimensional gender inscriptions inherent in their very constitution as autonomous masterworks of modernity.


In an uncanny manner, Huyssen's reading of man-woman through high modernism-mass culture and vice versa also returns us to Moi's account of the cultural difference within feminist criticism of the 1970s and 1980s. Whereas Moi endorses the textual politics of the French poststructuralists with the assumption that it is a more radical and rigorous politics, Huyssen's account shows us that it is precisely this kind of assumption of itself as more modern, more ahead than others, and more at the edge of time that is characteristic of the continual workings of high modernism. By implication of Huyssen's terms, we may say that the reading practices of Anglo-American feminist critics have, in fact, been implicitly equated in Moi's reading with deluded, simple-minded mass culture (woman), while French poststructuralist écriture féminine has been equated with the rigor of autonomous high art (man).

This brief account of the divergent, often incompatible or self-contradicting, views toward femininity and feminization of culture is testimony to what I would call the supplementary logic of “woman” in the West. If the singularity of the name “man” is what is being questioned and challenged by the addition of “woman” as a category, then by the same logic, “woman” itself can hardly be expected to remain a stable, unchanging frame of reference. Even in an account that is so apparently unsympathetic toward women as Douglas's, it seems to me that the term “feminization” is much less an attempt to define the essence of woman as such than it is a manner of articulating the historical—that is, mutating—relationships among various parts of culture as they have been socially institutionalized. In the counter move, on the part of the second-wave feminists, to elevate women's status to a respectable separateness from men's, the economic and cultural resonances of Douglas's original argument seem to have been bypassed. What remains takes on the resemblance of a project aimed single-mindedly at legitimizing the idea of woman, which then easily lends itself to the pertinent charge of essentialism when poststructuralists such as Moi come along.3

Were we, however, to recognize in the epistemologically unstabilizable status of “woman” the supplementary logic of the supplement, a different type of question can be raised. No longer would it be sufficient to think of “woman” simply in relation to “man” (since that addition has already been accomplished); nor would it be sufficient simply to pluralize, to talk of multiple “women” while the assumption of something called “woman” remains intact. Rather, it would be imperative to see how, precisely at the moment “woman” is added to “man,” the world can, paradoxically, no longer be thought of in terms of the “man-woman” relation alone. This is because “woman” brings with it not only an essential content that can be added on or subtracted at will but also a function of reconceptualizing the status quo itself as fiction, a function whose most radical aspect is its irreversibility and unstoppability. By the time “woman” arrives at man's side, as it were, the coupling of “man-woman” is already obsolete, not so much because its twosomeness is heterosexist as because such a twosomeness itself will have to be recognized as part of something else, something whose configuration—as class or race, for instance—becomes graspable exactly at the moment of the supplement's materialization. This, in part, is the reason it is much more difficult to stabilize “woman” than “man.” As we have seen, both the attempts to demote and promote “woman” remain ever unsatisfactory; it is as if, once the term is invoked—once “woman” is made analytically viable—we are already, in spite of our ostensible efforts, moving in and into another realm of cultural relations that can no longer be confined to gender.4

To further explore this supplementary logic of “woman,” I will next turn to two fictional narrative models that give us two significant moments of the feminization of Western culture in modern times. Since one model is Anglo-American and the other French, their juxtaposition will also allow us an opportunity to rethink certain differences that some have insisted on between these two ethnic classifications. As I will try to argue, there is, to the contrary, a discernible genealogical continuity at least between the narrative models.


The first narrative model is the familiar story of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, in which Jane, the apparently orphaned girl who suffers wrongs and abuse at various stages of her life eventually becomes the wife of her beloved Mr. Rochester. For those interested in Brontë's classic, the presence of the other woman, the creole Bertha Mason, Rochester's first wife whom he brought back from the West Indies and locked up in the attic, has always served as a kind of narrative puzzle to be solved. For feminist critics in particular, it is clear that Bertha somehow provides the clue to the meaning of the entire novel and, for that matter, to the project of feminist revision itself. This is the reason Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar titled their notable feminist rewriting of English literature The Madwoman in the Attic. Their project, like those of their contemporary feminist critics, may be described in terms of what Cora Kaplan calls the “Subject of Feminism”—“a figure of speech who represents not a person, an author, or a character, or even an established discourse, but rather a developing stance, a set of ideas in process which question the logic of women's subordination in culture and nature” (171). Intent as their contemporaries were on consolidating the status of “woman,” Gilbert and Gubar interpret Bertha as a double of Jane. The racial and/or ethnic difference between the two women characters is thus elided in favor of what was in the 1970s a political act of unifying womanhood.5 In the course of time, this very political act would be recognized by many as an act of essentialism.

As it became necessary to rethink the singularity of “woman” according to the logic of the supplement, various critics have since the 1970s alerted us to the imperialist cultural underpinnings of Brontë's book. Written in a historical period during which British society took a substantial interest in ethnographic and ethnological discourses, Brontë's novel was, as Kaplan writes, symptomatic of “the proto-feminist writing that initially emphasized the female child's likeness to and/or identifications with racial, hybrid, or deformed others en route to presenting her adult self as the ethical model of national subjectivity” (181). Jane's empowerment of herself through language and writing (Armstrong and Tennenhouse) is at the expense of Bertha's ever having access to human personhood and subjectivity in the post-Enlightenment sense (Spivak). In a text that is considered one of the first major examples of a woman overcoming patriarchal and class domination in modern times, then, we have an uncanny reminder and remainder of the non-Western other—the savage madwoman in the attic—who as part of the same process must be defeated, imprisoned, and driven to destruction and suicide. The presence of Bertha compels us to think anew of Brontë's work as a story about what happens when a woman attains social status and credibility in British culture. This process of feminization, accordingly, cannot simply be considered as a matter of the ascendancy of “woman” as such, but must rather be seen as the emergence of a discursive network in which forces of class and race as well as gender become imbricated with one another.

Whereas Kaplan, Armstrong and Tennenhouse, Spivak, and others (see also Sharpe 26-53 and Meyer 60-95) have drawn attention to the historical racial makings of the Jane Eyre story, I would like, as a complementary gesture, to foreground its fictional, narrative elements. By isolating these elements structurally in a kind of morphology—“a description of the tale according to its component parts and the relationship of these components to each other and to the whole” (Propp 19)—my point is to show them as constituents of a fairy tale that became convertible and transportable from one culture into another. Let me sum up these elements as follows:

  1. The lonely orphan girl who becomes a loyal wife. An orphaned child who must fend for herself, Jane provides the paradigmatic example of someone who moves from complete material lack and social inferiority to the condition of “self-possession,” a condition in which she becomes her own “master.” In Victorian England, this self-possession necessarily includes knowing how to handle the demands placed on female sexuality. Jane's success in this regard can be seen in her using her intelligence (rather than her body) to attain the status of being a married woman who can reproduce biologically.
  2. The sensitive rich man with a mysterious past. The orphan girl meets the experienced rich man, who has a dark secret that haunts him but that somehow he cannot articulate. Many eligible ladies of his prestigious class background desire him, but he singles out the orphan girl because he senses in her a capacity for sympathetic understanding. Importantly, even though the man is wealthy and often has dark moods, he is presented, like the orphan girl, as a kind of victim who has been wronged and oppressed.
  3. The spectral other woman, the first wife. In order for the story to proceed, there has to be an obstacle or an enemy, a threat to the well-being of the main characters. In Jane Eyre, this obstacle is provided by Bertha Mason, the foreign, beastly woman-object who stands in the way of the harmony of the present society. With the presence of Bertha, the representation of “woman” is split into two. Femininity is polarized into love, understanding, and a capacity to listen to the powerful man who perceives himself as a victim, on the one hand, and uncontrolled sexuality, madness, and a refusal to cooperate with the (white) patriarchal order, on the other.
  4. The confession. The rich man tries to evade the past but is forced in the end to confess to Jane the nature of his relationship with Bertha. The revelation of the truth, namely, that Bertha is the legal wife and Jane the potential mistress, leads to Jane's temporary departure, but it also bonds her to Rochester forever.
  5. The setting of the enormous, stately mansion. Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre is a symbol of wealth and worldly power; at the same time, metaphorically speaking, it is also an isolated, haunted interior, like the heart of the rich man. It is haunted because there is a madwoman in it somewhere. Now that it houses another woman, what will happen?
  6. The catastrophe. In terms of plot structure, the fire removes the impediment, the mad woman. But she is also the one who sets it: literally, therefore, the mad woman has to remove herself in order to liberate herself—in suicide. While the destruction of his manor leaves the rich man in a state of ruin, it also makes way for a new beginning (in the sense of an almost religious cleansing, a baptism by fire).
  7. The ending: social acceptance and reproduction. Jane and Rochester are finally able to become a married couple and produce a son. The lonely orphan girl with no one to protect her becomes, in the end, a powerful agent carrying on the reproductive imperative that lies at the heart of social progress.

This intentionally reductionist and formalistic summary of Brontë's fairy tale enables certain crucial issues to emerge with clarity. In terms of the politics of gender, the most important legacy of the Jane Eyre plot is, as is already noted by critics, the structural division of “woman” into the good, passionate, but innocent new girl and the evil, dangerous first wife. The point that needs to be emphasized, though, is that this splitting of woman means that it is the man who remains at the narrative center. This point tends to be eclipsed because Jane has been constructed by Brontë as the narrator of her own tale. The medium of writing, assumed by a mature Jane who has attained social power, wealth, status, and motherhood, conveys her character as that of a knowledgeable woman whose claim to moral integrity comes with a retrospective mastery of the past. At the same time, her ability for verbal self-representation also considerably complicates—and makes less credible—the very innocence and goodness that are supposedly the qualities of this independent and headstrong female.6 It is, therefore, when the Jane Eyre story is translated into the medium of film—not so much in the film versions of Brontë's novel as in Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 classic Rebecca (the first film he made in Hollywood), itself adapted from Daphne du Maurier's novel of the same title—that this discrepancy between the innocent, girlish protagonist and the knowing, cerebral woman writer is effectively removed.7 In Hitchcock's film, which is similarly the story of a young woman's “initiation” into a mysterious rich man's haunted world through a discovery of the unmentionable past (also concerning a first wife, the beautiful and unconventional Rebecca), the nameless girlish character (played by Joan Fontaine) is diegetically stripped of her authority as the narrator of the tale except at the beginning few minutes, after which Hitchcock simply drops her voice-over. This little technical change positions the young woman much more convincingly as the helpless, unknowing one who is caught between her suffering husband and the evil females at the Manderlay household—the dead Rebecca (described posthumously by her doctor as “tall” and “dark”) and her diabolic representative Mrs. Danvers—with their apparent sinful knowledge and their capacities to do harm.

By doing away with the authoritative narrative voice of the second wife, Hitchcock enables the sexual politics embedded in the narrative positionings of the characters to be seen much more unambiguously as male-dominant. In other words, Hitchcock makes us realize that although a woman may act as the narrator, it is still a man's story that serves as the hinge of the entire narrative. In the film Rebecca, as in Jane Eyre, the man makes a confession that would constitute the critical narrative turn. By his own account, Maxim de Winter (played by Laurence de Olivier) did not actually kill Rebecca but had put her in a boat, which he let sink in the sea, after she had accidentally killed herself during their quarrel. This confession, made at the climactic point of the film when Rebecca's body is found again after she has supposedly long been buried, positions the unknowing young wife as the confidante and in the process turns her in no uncertain terms into the rich man's accomplice.8 It is one of the remarkable features of Hitchcock's narrative that, while the resurfacing of Rebecca's body prompts a new series of investigations jointly by the police, the law, and medicine, precisely the discovery made by these social institutions ends up concealing forever the truth of her death. The real function served by the revelation of this truth in its entirety (to the young wife and to the audience), therefore, is the production of the socially approved married couple (Max and the young wife). By finally confiding in his young wife, Max has, as has Rochester in Jane Eyre, found himself a new partnership, a female community in which his secret will be safe, while he is emancipated to be a new man.

As in the case of Jane Eyre, the structural division of woman into good and evil is resolved in Rebecca through a catastrophe with symbolic significance. A fire set by Mrs. Danvers destroys the stately mansion at Manderlay. From the perspective of the evil woman, the fire is, as I already mentioned, a suicide (putting an end to Rebecca and her legacy). From the perspective of the rich man, it is a destruction of what has been haunting him and thus a brand new beginning. From the perspective of the innocent young wife, the significance of the fire can be seen, as Tania Modleski writes, as a final severance of her maternal ties—that is, she is finally leaving behind her connections with the other, older women in order to comply with the patriarchal requirements of a heterosexual marriage.9 Remembering the imperialist underpinnings of Jane Eyre, we may add that these maternal ties are not simply about “woman” or even the man-woman relation alone.10

If feminization is, as I mentioned, taken broadly to mean a cultural process in which “woman” becomes an active, observable agent and producer of knowledge, then the elements of the Jane Eyre narrative model may be said to constitute the generic actions of a prevalent plot of the feminization of culture in modern times. This story attributes power to woman sentimentally—on account of her original lack, her exclusion from social power unless and until she is allied with a man. As it becomes clear in Rebecca, this is an alliance in which woman has to play the subordinate role of the selfless recipient of knowledge and consenting accomplice. This subordination—this unity with the man in which he rather than she remains the center of her narrative—is what makes it possible for the successful elimination of the other woman.11 To invoke the terms of Anglo-American criticism that continue to be in use, the “agency” allowed the woman as “self,” as someone coming into her own “personhood,” depends on a concrete moral choice: to live by letting the other woman live also (as a person, or as a haunting memory), or to live as a subordinate to man. The feminization process offered by the Jane Eyre model has the young woman choose the latter.12 To this fundamental, morally self-righteous aggression against the other woman, critics such as Kaplan, Armstrong and Tennenhouse, and Spivak have added the gloss of race: they have taught us that this “woman's picture” is, historically speaking, white.


In some respects, the Jane Eyre legacy may be described in the same manner that Moi has described Anglo-American feminist criticism, in terms of “the radical contradiction it presents between feminist politics and patriarchal aesthetics” (69). In the case of the fictional narrative, feminist politics is primarily a matter of an interest in the rise of the domestic woman, the wife, who must nonetheless conform with the patriarchal moral-aesthetic requirement that she be sexually virginal, and loyal only to the man and his values (however passionate and cerebral she herself may be). Eventually, this Victorian definition of female power would have to come to terms with another kind of femininity, this time of the woman who no longer stays put as the faithful little wife but who has become sexually liberated. Again, by extending the implications of Moi's terms, we may articulate a particular discursive affinity between sexual and textual politics: if female sexual chastity (in Jane Eyre and her Victorian sisters) can be seen as a kind of stable referent, which in turn accounts for the production of certain “realist” feminist practices (“Anglo-American”), then female promiscuity should, by extension, result in something quite different both in terms of sexual mores and textual politics.

It is in this light that Marguerite Duras's Hiroshima mon amour (1959, directed by French New Wave director Alain Resnais; page references in this essay are to the English translation of Duras's text) may be seen as a “French” response and complement to the Anglo-American fairy tale. A brief summary of the film, which one critic has described as “what may well be the most remarkable motion picture landmark of the century” (Cismaru 149), is as follows. Fourteen years after the end of the Second World War, a French actress comes with a film crew to Japan to make a film about Hiroshima. During her stay she meets a Japanese architect, with whom she has a brief affair. The encounter with the Japanese man triggers in the woman memories that have long remained inarticulate. These are memories of her traumatic personal experience during the war in Europe. A young girl then, she had fallen in love with a German soldier, and the two were planning to elope to Bavaria to get married. On the eve of their elopement, he was killed by partisans. She was then ostracized as a national traitor, and had her hair shorn as part of her punishment. She sank into madness for months, and her family kept her in the cellar. When she recovered, the war had come to an end, and she was sent to Paris. On the day she arrived in Paris, there was news all over the place about the atomic bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima. Fourteen years later, as a happily married woman, she has come to Japan and met a man who reminds her of her German lover. She recalls the story of her past to the Japanese architect, who urges her to stay longer with him. Caught between the past and the present, between the pain of memory and the intensity of the current romance, the woman seems not to know what will or should happen next. The film ends in this ambiguous, open-ended condition.

Stylistically, Hiroshima mon amour is obviously in sharp contrast to Hollywood dramas such as Rebecca. To mention just one instance, whereas in Rebecca the plot is important because its progress is essential to the revelation of the truth, in Hiroshima mon amour the point is rather to experiment with nonlinear narrative, in which memory takes the place of external events to constitute the main action. Instead of a well-plotted story, then, we are looking at psychodrama, the involuntary and unexpected remembrance of the woman's past. By juxtaposing such psychodrama with the documentary images of what happened to the people in Hiroshima because of the atomic bomb, the film thus problematizes the limits of representation in a self-conscious manner that is characteristic of high modernist and avant-garde works. These obvious stylistic divergences notwithstanding, I think it is far more interesting to note the affinities here with the narrative elements of the Jane Eyre story. To that extent, it would be helpful to borrow loosely from Vladimir Propp's work on Russian fairy tales the notion of “function,” which can be understood as “an act of a character, defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action.” For Propp, such functions are “independent of how and by whom they are fulfilled”; they “constitute the fundamental components of a tale” and tend to remain constant from tale to tale (Propp 20-21).13

I would contend that the functions of the Jane Eyre paradigm are most strikingly recognizable, paradoxically, when Duras introduces variations—modern-day conversions—in her film text:

  1. The figure of the virginal orphan girl is changed into the sexually experienced and knowledgeable woman. Importantly, it is she, rather than the man, who now occupies the central position in the narrative as the one with the mysterious past.
  2. As in the case of the rich man with a past in the Jane Eyre and Rebecca stories, in the French woman's past is the other sexual partner. But whereas in the earlier stories the other woman exists as a threat that needs to be removed, in Hiroshima mon amour, the German soldier is recalled with emotional intensity. Rather than trying to get rid of him, the French woman feels guilty that she may be betraying and losing him simply by telling their story.
  3. In the present diegesis there is the new sexual partner, the Japanese architect. As Jane and the young wife in Rebecca listen to their men, the Japanese man listens to the French woman. In other words, the presence of the current partner, again, enables the revelation of what actually happened in the past.
  4. Similarly, there is an act of confession (of recalling the past), with the difference that it now comes from the woman. As in the Victorian stories, this confession bonds the new lovers. The Japanese man is happy to hear the French woman say that even her husband has not heard her story.

Whereas in Jane Eyre and Rebecca it is still the man's inner world around which the plot revolves, in Hiroshima mon amour, the woman's inner world has come fully to the fore. Whereas in the Anglo-American stories “woman” remains objectified and metaphorically divided into the good girl and the femme fatale, in the French story it is man who is divided into a past and a present, with no attempt at demonization involved in the woman's own mind (even though the German soldier was a national enemy). As in the case of Jane Eyre and Rebecca, moreover, the partner in the present is put in the position of someone who has to discover what took place in the past. In Rebecca, the innocent wife at first thinks she should become more and more like Rebecca, only to find out that her husband loves her rather for her difference from the dead, older woman. In Hiroshima mon amour, the Japanese architect reminds the French woman of her former lover, so much so that she addresses him as “you” when she is talking about the German soldier. In their conversation, the Japanese man willingly plays the role of the other man. In each case, albeit in very different ways, the gendered roles involve questions of identification and disidentification—of the new lover becoming like or unlike the old one—that are critical to the progress of the narrative.

There are also the remaining elements:

  1. In contrast to the stately mansion in the Victorian stories, the setting in Hiroshima mon amour is rather public—a hotel room, the street, a train station, a teahouse, and so forth. But, as in the case of the Victorian stories, these external spaces are meant to foreground the haunted “interior” of the protagonist, in this case the French woman.
  2. There is also a catastrophe. The point of Hiroshima mon amour is, however, to raise questions about what the real catastrophe is. Is it Hiroshima? Is it the murder of the woman's German lover in Nevers?
  3. The ending. While it remains ambiguous and open, the ending nonetheless poses a similar question of social reproduction and continuance. After this confrontation between her and him, Nevers and Hiroshima, what?

Here, the most interesting point of contrast with the Jane Eyre and Rebecca stories is that Hiroshima mon amour begins with a public catastrophe (the site at which the atomic bomb was dropped), about which there is no secret. Nevertheless, as in the case of Jane Eyre and Rebecca, it is an internal journey to the past that takes us to that other, more traumatic catastrophe—with the difference that it is the woman who now assumes the center stage as confessing subject. If Hiroshima is the site of a ruin, Duras's text says, it must now share the focus with the French woman's private life, the interior of her mind which, too, has experienced destruction and desolation.

Indeed, this division of the past (and its catastrophes) into the public and the private is perhaps Hiroshima mon amour's most significant point of departure from the “realism” of the nineteen-century English woman's novel and the plot-driven drama of Hollywood. In what amounts to a competition introduced at the discursive level between the massive destruction of a population that befell Hiroshima, on the one hand, and a woman's memory of her love affair, the murder of her lover, her descent into madness, and her recovery, on the other, Duras takes the feminization of Western culture to a new stage of spectacularity, with the powerful suggestion that what happened to the woman's love life, unbeknownst to most, ultimately deserves as much attention as an unprecedented historical disaster that erased an entire city. As Leslie Hill writes, “love and the nuclear holocaust, Japan and France, remembering and forgetting—all the agents of subversion Duras enumerates exist in a relationship of reciprocal equivalence” (31). The boldness of Duras's conception is clearly indicated in the title of the film, which epitomizes in a scandalous fashion the tension between the two ways of remembering the past, and which naturally provokes the question: “Is this analogy between a personal trauma and an historical one justified? … Is historiography akin to the operation of individual memory?” (Glassman 27). But this seeming scandal is precisely the point of what I would call Duras's avant-garde moralism—namely, that yes, a banal, commonplace love affair can indeed dominate Hiroshima because in it lies (for Duras) the possibility of elevating the significance of Hiroshima above the mere documentary level14:

A banal tale, one that happens thousands of times every day. The Japanese is married, has children. So is the French woman, who also has two children. Theirs is a one-night affair.

But where? At Hiroshima.

Their embrace—so banal, so commonplace—takes place in the one city of the world where it is hardest to imagine it: Hiroshima. Nothing is “given” at Hiroshima. Every gesture, every word, takes on an aura of meaning that transcends its literal meaning. And this is one of the principal goals of the film: to have done with the description of horror by horror, for that has been done by the Japanese themselves, but make this horror rise again from its ashes by incorporating it in a love that will necessarily be special and “wonderful,” one that will be more credible than if it had occurred anywhere else in the world, a place that death had not preserved. …

Their personal story, however brief that may be, always dominates Hiroshima.

If this premise were not adhered to, this would be just one more made-to-order picture [film de commande], of no more interest than any fictionalized documentary [documentaire romancé]. If it is adhered to, we'll end up with a sort of false documentary that will probe the lesson of Hiroshima more deeply than any made-to-order documentary [documentaire de commande].

(Duras 9-10; emphasis in the original)15

There is little doubt as to Duras's authorial intention in these remarks. For my purposes, what matters is not whether her text corresponds exactly to her intention but the manner in which she goes about realizing such an intention. To make a story that is not “just one more made-to-order picture,” Duras, like Brontë and Hitchcock before her, makes use of sexuality as it is attached to womanhood. Not being Victorian, she does not require her heroine to be sexually chaste. Instead, she gives us an attractive and experienced married woman, to whom occasional sexual infidelity is not a moral concern. Moreover, it is this openness to sex with multiple partners, we might say, that allows the woman a unique means of access to the meaning of her existence, her post-catastrophic survival. By making her protagonist a promiscuous woman, Duras has therefore moved the narrative constituents of the Jane Eyre fairy tale to a fresh level of sophistication: not only is the “loose” sexual behavior of woman no longer an issue; it is, on the contrary, such looseness, such rejection of bygone sexual constraints that becomes the key to an intense emotional experience, transgressing and subverting the boundaries of what is conventionally (socially and nationally as well as morally) acceptable. Sex and love are, we are compelled into thinking, not so banal after all: like Hiroshima, sex and love, when attached to a liberated woman, are equally, if not more, violent and earthshaking events.

Significantly, sexuality is no longer only situated on the woman's body but primarily in her mind, her “subjectivity.” This otherwise invisible, interior depth is what is being displayed on the screen as the woman recalls the past. Instead of the body surface, then, it is sexuality as remembered in the cavities of the woman's mind which have been brought to light and laid bare in her act of confession. Like the Japanese architect, the audience becomes “voyeurs” who are privileged to enter this sexuality and engage with its unique revelations. For Duras, the French woman's act of confessing is the equivalent of a gift of the most sacred kind:

To give oneself, body and soul, that's it.

That is the equivalent not only of amorous possession, but of a marriage.

She gives this Japanese—at Hiroshima—her most precious possession: herself as she now is [son expression actuelle même], her survival after the death of her love at Nevers.

(Duras 112; emphases in the original)

Whereas the man's confession about his past in Jane Eyre and Rebecca is what makes the young second wife give her body and soul to him, here, the promiscuous woman's confession about her past is the equivalent of her giving body and soul to the new man. Despite the apparent contrasts in technique between the Anglo-American and French stories of feminization, in both cases confession is ultimately linked to the giving of herself by the woman, which is in turn sanctified as “marriage.” Albeit operating with a different set of sexual mores, the French woman arrives at this remarkable resemblance to Jane Eyre and the nameless second wife in Rebecca because Duras's presentation of her, in the final analysis, is that she is a vulnerable and helpless victim before the weight of a repressed memory. Like her Anglo-American sisters, Duras tells us, the French woman is a survivor, who has now, through her act of giving herself, successfully captured a man of her desire.

In the hands of Duras, Western female subjectivity has become fully vindicated, beyond the mere physical body, as a kind of dissident, delirious, poetic text—a text that is at “play” between absence and presence, and amply “resistant” toward the “recuperation” by public history (I am citing from the repertoire of terms that are commonly invoked to describe the revolutionary pleasures of the avant-garde text). To go one step further, we may argue that Duras's rewriting of female sexuality is homologous to the poststructuralist rewriting of textuality. Like the poststructuralist text, female sexuality is now treated as an unstable, mobile signifier, no longer to be confined to a realist referent, and that, so the logic goes, is what makes “woman” interesting. But precisely at the place at which the woman is, as Duras believes, at her most vulnerable and helpless (because she is “exposing herself” to her new lover and thus to the audience's gaze), feminization in its avant-garde form becomes racial power. If, in the Jane Eyre narrative, the ascendance of the rural, orphaned woman to second wifehood means the elimination of the other woman, in Duras, the ascendance of the cosmopolitan woman as text—in the form of her open sexuality, her memory, her subjectivity—goes hand in hand with a minimization, if not disappearance, of the other man. This is not the white man, the German lover who continues to be a cherished part of the woman's memory, but the second partner, the Japanese architect whose presence, much like that of the nameless little wife in Rebecca, is mainly for the purpose of serving as a screen on which the woman can recall and project her past.

Apart from its genealogical linkages with the Anglo-American fairy tales in terms of narrative functions, therefore, the status of the French woman's story should also be understood in contrast to the absence of a story from the Japanese architect, who is in the main presented as a male pursuing a female in the classical romantic manner. In a story that is so astutely attentive to issues of memory, suffering, and survival, the Japanese architect, who is also a survivor of the war, strangely does not enjoy the same kind of psychological and textual exploration that is given the French woman. This point, I'd like to stress, is not as simple as it may sound because it is not a matter of faulting Duras for not writing an equally profound story about the Japanese. Rather, it is a questioning of the distribution of narrative investments on the very terms that Duras herself uses to legitimate her avant-garde project.

To begin to see this, we need to remember that the explicit or implicit target of much of high modernist and avant-garde literature and film is, as Moi's reading of Anglo-American feminist criticism pointedly suggests, “realism”—the hardcore “referentiality” that, for modernists and avant-garde writers, is a kind of representational ideology of a bygone era, something that is quite beneath notice. This rather condescending tone toward the realist and the referential is the one in which Moi couches her assessment of the Anglo-American feminists, who are, she implies, not as theoretically advanced as the French women theorists because they are somehow (alas, still) stuck in the primitive (Victorian) modes of representation (hence they are merely political). Duras's work, insofar as it consciously sets itself apart from what she calls “made-to-order” documentaries, insofar as it firmly rejects a realist and public historical approach to Hiroshima, must be understood also in terms of this representational dialectic between so-called referentiality and its avant-garde dislocation. It is in the context of these progressivist theoretical arguments about representation that the absence of a story about the Japanese takes on significance. For, in Hiroshima mon amour, the “primitive” modes of representation have not exactly disappeared; they are simply displaced.

In a text whose avowed aesthetic aim is to resist the superficiality of documentary realism, exactly the documentary approach is used, in an unproblematized manner, on the racial other—Hiroshima, the Japanese people, the architect and his family. There are, first, the images of massive destruction and bodily remains that accompany the camera tour of the Hiroshima War Museum and hospital at the beginning of the film. The racial other is here presented matter-of-factly in terms of a “public” history and record for all to see. The point of the nominal, cursory recognition of this history and record is in order to show that it will pale—become meaningless—in comparison with the unseen, psychological, private history and record we are about to discover lying deep inside the woman.

Remembering Huyssen's point about high modernist art—that it is, despite its adversarial stance toward bourgeois society, epistemologically bound to the reality principle rather than pleasure principle of that society—we can begin to see the evaluative hierarchy (and discrimination) that structures Duras's conception of her story. Realism and referentiality, being scorned mimetic orders, are no longer good enough for a progressive, avant-garde representation of the French woman, who embodies a profound, psychologically individuated reality. But realism and referentiality, she seems meanwhile to say, remain adequate and appropriate for the representation of yellow people, whose reality, being less profound, can continue to be treated as a mere group event. On the one hand, then, the Japanese architect is presented as a member of a collective, and his victimization, like the victimization of Japan, has this public (accessible) meaning only, in contrast to that of his lover. When he asks what kind of a film she is making in Hiroshima, for instance, the French woman says: “A film about Peace. What else do you expect them to make in Hiroshima except a picture about Peace?” (Duras 34). Cultural difference, in other words, is organized on the representational plane in terms of an opposition between the refinement of sexual and textual play, and the elementariness of a crude and old-fashioned factographicity (of that which is already understood, as the woman's words imply: what else do you expect?). On the other hand, cultural difference, even though found throughout the text and already organized in this representationally hierarchical manner, is simultaneously disavowed by authorial direction. Duras insists:

[I]t is preferable to minimize the difference between the two protagonists. If the audience never forgets that this is the story of a Japanese man and a French woman, the profound implications of the film are lost. If the audience does forget it, these profound implications become apparent. …

Monsieur Butterfly is outmoded. So is Mademoiselle de Paris. We should count upon the egalitarian function of the modern world. … This Franco-Japanese film should never seem Franco-Japanese, but anti-Franco-Japanese. That would be a victory.

His profile might almost seem French. A high forehead. A large mouth. Full, but hard lips. Nothing affected or fragile about his face. No angle from which his features might seem vague (indecisive).

In short, he is an “international” type [En somme, il est d'un type “international”]. …

He is a modern man, wise in the ways of the world. He would not feel out of place in any country in the world.

(Duras 109-10; first three emphases in the original, last emphasis mine)

What, we might ask, is an “‘international’ type” if not precisely a “made-to-order” documentary representation?

All in all, whether hierarchically organized (in which case it is disparaged as mere realism and referentiality) or disavowed (in which case it should be forgotten in favor of a modern, internationalist humanism), cultural difference—“Japan”—is there simply in order for the subjectivity—the existential survival, the attainment of individual being—of the French woman to be performed. As Sharon Willis puts it, “In refusing the capitalizing gesture, along with the totalizing gesture of the mastery of history, Hiroshima mon amour risks denying its own particular investments, the specific effects of history, and the inescapability of the referent which as much conditions the textual enterprise as does that referent's very inaccessibility” (59). As in the dialectic between high modernism and mass culture that Huyssen dissects, Duras's avant-garde text fully depends on mass culture—the “made-to-order” documentary that it consciously disdains—in order to be what it is. Only thus does her avant-garde text achieve its puritanist revolutionariness.

By the standards set by Moi, a text such as Duras's, on account of its textual radicalness, should be deemed more political than a naïve political protest against the horrors of Hiroshima. In my brief comparison of Duras's text to the Jane Eyre model, I hope I have sufficiently demonstrated—against the common belief that Anglo-American and French feminisms are drastically different phenomena—some of the structural and imaginary continuities between two major instances of feminization that bear these ethnic labels.

To clarify this further, let me reiterate that it is, of course, pertinent to recognize the different moral-aesthetic premises upon which each of these fairy tales operates. In the Anglo-American model, representation still functions on the basis of a classic opposition between an inside and an outside, so that in the course of the second wife's progress, she gradually moves from being a powerless outsider, rejected by her society, to being an insider firmly rooted in the patriarchal order, its angel of the house. Her power as woman, notably, is achieved through the removal and exclusion of others, especially other women, from her arena. Instead of her, it is these other women who must now remain forever on the outside. The plot of feminization at this juncture has simply confirmed and perpetuated the logic of a well-worn masculinist moral-aesthetic. In the French model, moral-aesthetic issues are articulated differently because representation itself, as is often the case in high modernist and avant-garde texts, is no longer assumed to be a transparent process. Whereas in Jane Eyre and Rebecca it is still possible to concentrate on the story, in Hiroshima mon amour the “story” is about the process of storytelling, the act of representation (hence Duras's many remarks as to what she wants her film text to be and how it should be received, etc.). It is in this sense that the text has taken on a material, opaque status, removing the moral-aesthetic distinctions that used to divide inside and outside, reality and fiction, or history and memory, and rendering these oppositions as different points on the same representational plane.16 Despite this highly self-conscious understanding of representation, however, despite the magisterial manner in which she has done away with the moralism of an earlier era and lifted the status of fiction and memory to a level as a solemn as “reality” and “history,” my point is that Duras's avant-garde film text reintroduces another kind of moralist opposition, this time in a progressivist manner, between the realism of “made-to-order” documentaries and the avant-gardism of her own aesthetics, into which she respectively inserts nonwhite people (as a mass) and her white heroine (as an individual).

Duras's example demonstrates that the maneuver of textualizing politics, while oftentimes a necessary and instructive complement to the simple practice of politicizing texts, is not itself ideology-free, although “ideology” has now taken the form of theoretical “advancement”—by way of a subtle division of narrative/representational investments. If the most radical aspect of the textualization of politics—of the move to dislocate even an obvious historical referent such as Hiroshima—turns out to be dependent, for its own avant-garde battles, on a recuperation of referentiality as the semiotic ghetto in which to banish the non-white other, then “French” is, we might argue, not so distinguishable from “Anglo-American” after all. Duras's text, which I have, for my own purposes, used as a referent for the fraught politics around feminization and representation, simply goes to show that sophisticated textualist politics does not necessarily preclude cultural imperialism, which is most successful when victimhood can continue to be used to expound particular subjectivities at the expense of other historical victims, when the difference between their respective representational statuses is, a priori, raced.17

If I am suggesting an alternative way of “politicizing the text” in order to counter the poststructuralist euphoria of “textualizing politics,” it is not simply by way of a return to Lukácsian realism. Rather, it is a practice of reading that, even as it must become sensitive to textual nuance and experimentation, would also be on the alert to detect precisely the avant-garde, textualist, and theoretical complicity with the perpetuation of any racialist hold on victimhood itself as cultural capital.18


Whether the text concerned is Victorian, modernist, or avant-garde, then, the tendency to monopolize victimhood is, to parody the title of Susan Gubar's 1998 article, what ails white feminism, which, since the second-wave feminism of the 1970s and 1980s, has been reluctant to dislodge white women from their preferred status as the representatives of alterity throughout Western history. As Sherene H. Razack puts it: “Confronted with white racial superiority, white women can deny their dominance by retreating to a position of subordination—that is, since we are oppressed as women, we cannot be oppressors of women of colour” (14). Razack argues that only an “interlocking analysis” can remind us “of the ease with which we slip into positions of subordination … without seeing how this very subordinate location simultaneously reflects and upholds race and class privilege” (14).

This racialist reluctance to give up the hold on victimhood is what Nancy Armstrong in her work on Anglo-American fiction refers to as the lingering power of the discourse of captivity, a discourse she traces in the captivity narratives that were produced during British colonial days in America, and that were circulated back to the mother country and remade into sentimental novels. The power of captivity lies in its twin capacity for sustaining victimhood (as a way to legitimize social protest) and for transforming victimhood into the very means of cultural domination itself. In the context of Jane Eyre, for instance, Armstrong argues that it is Jane, rather than Bertha, who personifies the power of captivity. In her personal development as a heroine, Jane becomes both a critic of the sexism of the dominant order and an agent of English imperialism. Jane's “claim that ‘this social order is bad, because it excludes me,’” Armstrong writes, “is perfectly compatible … with the claim that ‘this social order is good insofar as it includes me.’” This is because exclusion, subordination, and captivity—negative experiences which justify Jane's anger as a social outcast—are in the course of the narrative converted into the means of her empowerment, her final acceptance by the social order that entails her own control and expulsion of others. “Where the first claim launches a critique,” Armstrong adds, “the second claim limits that critique to a demand that never threatens but, indeed, updates the status quo and imbues it with a sense of adequacy” (“Captivity” 390).

Once the lingering power of captivity is understood, the complaints we hear from time to time from second-wave feminist critics about the current theoretical climate in the academy can be seen as part and parcel of an endeavor to keep the cultural capital of victimhood on the side of white feminism. This is the light in which I, for one, read Gubar's text “What Ails Feminist Criticism?” The title itself provides the key to the Victorian mode in which Gubar conceives of her narrative. Accordingly, it is feminist criticism itself that now occupies the position of the wronged and abused heroine. This remarkable “woman,” so the logic of this tale goes, was filled with healthy rage at an unjust social order and made her rightful protests. But despite the battles she had to fight and despite the accomplishments she has made for herself and others, she is once again maligned, besieged, held captive—this time by “a number of developments in the eighties and nineties,” that pose “a hazard to the vitality of feminist literary studies” (880). These developments include, on the one hand, “racialized identity politics,” which “made the word women slim down to stand only for a very particularized kind of woman,” and, on the other, poststructuralist theory, which “obliged the term to disappear altogether” (901, emphasis in the original). Gubar's account is filled with the vocabulary of disease, such as “maladies,” “infirmities,” “sickbed,” “ailment,” and the like. For scholars like her, who, to borrow the words of Razack, “have been arguing from a point of subordination, a position of innocence and non-implication in systems of oppression,” “it is white women who are really disparaged … and it is they who are the outsiders in the academy today” (169-70).

Despite having become dominant, in other words, white feminism as voiced by Gubar continues to view itself as a culture on the defense. Armstrong's words about the larger historical implications of the lure of captivity offer a sobering account of what is really at stake:

Even after the culture held captive has become the dominant culture, the captivity narrative represents that culture as a culture on the defense. Compelled by its own logic to expand the domain of capital, this culture defines its distinctive values in precisely other than economic terms and imagines those values as perpetually in danger. For this culture imagines itself in a feminine position under conditions of cultural warfare, in which the purity of its women, the safety of its children, and the sanctity of its basic unit, the household, are up for grabs. This is no less true for England and the United States under conditions of globalization, instantaneous communications, and hi-tech warfare, than it was during the epochs of Richardson, Austen, and Brontë.

(“Captivity” 395)19

As Robyn Wiegman points out, what Gubar fails or refuses to see is that perhaps it is precisely the new, interdisciplinary developments of intellectual inquiry, demonized by her as “debilitating” her heroine, that are keeping feminist criticism alive and healthy today. But whereas Wiegman sees the tensions and conflicts brought by these other developments as opportunities for feminist criticism to rethink its tasks—indeed, to reassess the conditions of its own continued existence—Gubar chooses instead to hold onto the sentimental language of captivity, injury, defense, and healing. The history of feminist criticism she writes remains articulated from the “celebratory vantage point of a gender privileged approach” (Wiegman 370), for which the emergence of “woman” is the originary, Edenic event, while any attempt to challenge it, however historically reasoned such an attempt may be, will have to be construed as a rude assault on the identity of an innocent victim.

So, when whiteness feminizes … the myth is that the world would from then on be fairly redistributed on the new basis of a man-woman relation. As white feminists soon discover, things have not quite stabilized in the way they expect. Because she is figured as supplementary to man, “woman” by necessity comes with two possible types of epistemological consequences. One of these would always involve attempts to strip the supplement of its supplementary force and recontain it within a single entity; the other would follow the supplement's logic to make way for other supplements to the supplement that is woman. In the morphology of fictional elements I have discussed (Gubar's narrative about feminist criticism being one of their latest variations), it would appear that what often surfaces in classic white feminine/feminist texts is precisely the restriction and containment of the supplement. Nevertheless, the supplements to “woman” will undoubtedly persist. In the form of demons and specters, or else in the form of made-to-order documentaries, these other supplements—the other kinds of women, the non-Western men as well as women—will continue to remind us of the fundamentally open, if ever discontented and unfinished, business known as the feminization of culture.


  1. This second-wave feminism is sometimes known as “difference” feminism or “gynocentric” feminism. All of these terms designate the turning point at which Western feminists systematically developed women-specific approaches that generated more complex explanations for the problem of women's oppression than the ones hitherto provided by classical Marxist analyses. For a succinct account that highlights feminists in nonliterary disciplines, see Nicholson.

  2. In opposition to Douglas, Tompkins, for instance, affirms women's sentimental fiction by arguing that literary sensationalism can be a form of political intervention.

  3. For an exemplary critique of feminist essentialism and its philosophical origins, see Spelman.

  4. The unstable and unstabilizable status of “woman” is in part what has provoked some recent debates about the status of Women's Studies as a field of inquiry. See the essays in the differences special issue “Women's Studies on the Edge,” in particular Cook and Henry with Scott.

  5. Gilbert writes that “Bertha … is Jane's truest and darkest double: the angry aspect of the orphan child, the ferocious secret self Jane has been trying to repress ever since her days at Gateshead” (“Plain Jane's Progress” 492). In a recent essay, Gilbert upholds and updates her previous views by reading Jane Eyre as a Cinderella filled with intense sexual passion. As for Bertha Mason, Gilbert emphasizes her whiteness (“The beautiful but dissolute daughter of a ‘Creole’ [probably French and Spanish] mother, Bertha is most likely of European descent, although her upbringing in the hot West Indies has led to a tradition of critical speculations that she is racially mixed” [“Jane Eyre” 360]) and then proceeds to read her as a woman driven mad by her excessive and unsatisfied sexual hunger. In thus adopting what in the context of Jane Eyre is Rochester's (racist) view of Bertha's sexuality (a view that equates dark-skinned peoples from hot climates with overly sexed natures), Gilbert proves herself, even in the late 1990s, an unswervingly compassionate and loyal wife to the master (in terms of the argument I am making). For a considerably more nuanced discussion of the ambiguity of Bertha's race, see Meyer 63-70.

  6. Armstrong and Tennenhouse's reading is responsive precisely to this fact of Jane as a writer; they argue that language and writing are the very means by which Jane empowers and socially reproduces herself despite her utter deprivation. See also Kaplan for a discussion of the differences in Brontë's novel between the innocent child protesting social injustice and the well-seasoned, knowledgeable adult Jane retelling her past.

  7. There was some controversy over plagiarism regarding Rebecca (raised by the family of a Mrs. MacDonald who wrote a novel called Blind Windows, which they claimed De Maurier's story copied). According to Du Maurier, the case was legally dismissed (see Rebecca Notebook 14-15). Du Maurier, who has made references to Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights in her memoirs (Rebecca Notebook 106-07; 120-21), has not, to my knowledge, indicated any borrowing from Charlotte's work, but the remarkable resemblance of her story to that of Jane Eyre speaks for itself. In “Jane Eyre,” Gilbert writes that “Jane Eyre is more a romance in the mode of such diversely Gothic descendants as The Turn of the Screw,Rebecca, and Wide Sargasso Sea than it is a ‘realistic’ novel in the mode of The Mill on the Floss or Middlemarch” (368). As my essay will make clear, I am much less interested in the issue of plagiarism than in what I think are the generic features of prevalent narrative elaborations of whiteness as whiteness undergoes feminization.

  8. Although in the film version of Rebecca, Max describes Rebecca as having accidentally killed herself during a quarrel with him, in the novel he actually confesses to having killed her. Du Maurier clearly registers this sense of complicity on the part of the young wife, the narrator of the tale, in these words: “I had listened to his story and part of me went with him like a shadow in his tracks. I too had killed Rebecca, I too had sunk the boat there in the bay …” (Rebecca 266).

  9. Rebecca is the story of a woman's maturation, a woman who must come to terms with a powerful father figure and assorted mother figures (Mrs. Van Hopper, Rebecca, and Mrs. Danvers)”; “Rebecca shows the heroine's attempt to detach herself from the mother in order to attach herself to a man” (Modleski 46, 50; emphases in the original).

  10. The strongest evidence for this is found in the character of Mrs. Danvers, who is fiercely defensive about her lost female idol. (See Berenstein, and Samuels 45-57, for discussions of the lesbian implications of Mrs. Danvers's affections and the circulation of feminine desire.) By her doctor's account, when Rebecca went secretly to see him about what she thought was a possible pregnancy, she did so under the name “Mrs. Danvers.”

  11. In Rebecca, in the scene in which Max de Winter makes his confession, the young woman's entire demeanor changes as she discovers, for the first time, that her husband has never loved Rebecca. This discovery gives her the strength to help him because the other woman is, at this point, clearly out of the picture—as the common enemy against whom husband and wife will now unite. Du Maurier's text reads as follows: “the rest of me sat there on the carpet, unmoved and detached, thinking and caring for one thing only, repeating a phrase over and over again, ‘He did not love Rebecca, he did not love Rebecca.’ … [S]omething new had come upon me that had not been before. My heart, for all its anxiety and doubt, was light and free. I knew then that I was no longer afraid of Rebecca. I did not hate her any more … Maxim had never loved her. I did not hate her any more. Her body had come back, her boat had been found with its queer prophetic name, Je Reviens, but I was free of her forever … I was not young any more. I was not shy. I was not afraid. I would fight for Maxim. I would lie and perjure and swear, I would blaspheme and pray. Rebecca had not won. Rebecca had lost” (Rebecca 267).

  12. Insofar as I think that even a strong woman character such as Jane Eyre is ultimately subordinate to man, my reading departs from the critical tradition of protofeminist arguments, made in the 1980s by critics such as Tompkins, about sentimental fiction. The reasons for my departure should, I hope, be clear from my arguments throughout this essay.

  13. Propp's morphology of the folktale has been modified and critiqued by various structuralist theorists, among whom is Lévi-Strauss (“L'analyse morphologique” and “La structure et la forme”), who argues that the empirical discovery of functions is insufficient for a generic understanding of the folktale as form (or as a completed kind of narrative). My purpose in referring to functions is different here; I am primarily interested in demonstrating the detectable continuities between the Anglo-American and French narratives, and not in developing an entire meta-narratological model.

  14. Hill describes this “elevating” in the following manner: “place names in Duras function consistently—particularly, say, in Hiroshima mon amour—as shorthand ciphers for a series of catastrophic events that have somehow broken loose from the confines of geography and history” (97).

  15. Duras's emphasis might also have been a response to the fact that Resnais was originally commissioned in 1958 to make a short documentary on the atomic bomb. He decided he could not do so and instead proposed an alternative that led to the Japanese-French coproduction of Hiroshima mon amour, with Duras as the writer of the screenplay.

  16. See Glassman 24-33, for instance, for a lucid discussion of the gender and existential implications of Duras's uses of visual representation as opposed to language and narrative.

  17. Insofar as this racing of representational statuses is a priori, Duras's placement of the Japanese in factographic referentiality is not categorically different from, for instance, Julia Kristeva's placement of Chinese women in the so-called preoedipal stage (see About Chinese Women). What is common to both cases is the perfunctory, theoretical simplification—that is, primitivization—of the non-white other, in contrast to the psychical and textual complexity that is copiously endowed on the white subject.

  18. Sherene H. Razack's comments on complicity are worth citing at length: “An attention to complicity has not strongly emerged in feminism because, for the most part, we continue to avoid any inquiry into domination and our role in it when we confront issues of difference and diversity. Instead, each of us feels most safe in these discussions anchored in our subordinated position by virtue of our being of colour, disabled, economically exploited, colonized, a lesbian, or a woman. … Knowing the difficulties involved in confronting our own role in systems of domination, we may find that being anchored on the margin is more preferable. Yet, if we remain anchored on the margin, the discourse with women subordinated to ourselves stops, and various moves of superiority, notably pity and cultural othering, prevail. We become unable to interrogate how multiple systems of oppression regulate our lives and unable to take effective collective action to change these systems” (132).

  19. For a comparative discussion of this situation by way of political philosophy, see Brown's analysis of the notion of injury in late modernity.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Nancy. “Captivity and Cultural Capital in the English Novel.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 31.3 (Summer 1998): 373-98.

Armstrong, Nancy, and Leonard Tennenhouse. “Introduction: Representing Violence, or ‘How the West Was Won.” The Violence of Representation: Literature and the History of Violence. Ed. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse. London: Routledge, 1989. 1-26.

Berenstein, Rhona. “‘I'm Not the Sort of Person Men Marry’: Monsters, Queers, and Hitchcock's Rebecca.Cineaction! 29 (1992): 82-96.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre (1848). Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston: Bedford, St. Martins P, 1996.

Brown, Wendy. States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995.

Cismaru, Alfred. Marguerite Duras. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1971.

Cook, Kathryn, and Renea Henry, with Joan Scott. “The Edge. Interview.” Scott, ed. 132-55.

Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Avon Books, 1977.

Du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. New York: Modern Library, 1938.

———. The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories. London: Victor Gollancz, 1981.

Duras, Marguerite. Hiroshima mon amour: scénario et dialogue. Paris: Gallimard, 1960.

———. Hiroshima mon amour. Trans. Richard Seaver. New York: Grove, 1961.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Gilbert, Sandra. “Plain Jane's Progress.” Brontë, Jane Eyre, 475-501. (Originally published in Signs 2.4 [Summer 1977]: 779-804.)

———. “Jane Eyre and the Secrets of Furious Lovemaking.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 31.3 (Summer 1998): 351-72.

Glassman, Deborah N. Marguerite Duras: Fascinating Vision and Narrative Cure. London: Associated UP, 1991.

Gubar, Susan. “What Ails Feminist Criticism?” Critical Inquiry 24.4 (Summer 1998): 878-902.

Hill, Leslie. Marguerite Duras: Apocalyptic Desires. London: Routledge, 1993.

Huyssen, Andreas. “Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism's Other.” After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986. 44-62.

Kaplan, Cora. “‘A Heterogeneous Thing’: Female Childhood and the Rise of Racial Thinking in Victorian Britain.” Human, All Too Human. Ed. Diana Fuss. New York: Routledge, 1996. 169-202.

Kristeva, Julia. About Chinese Women. 1974. Trans. Anita Barrows. London: Marion Boyars, 1977.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “L'analyse morphologique des contes russes.” International Journal of Slavic Linguistics and Poetics 3 (1960): 122-49.

———. “La Structure et la forme: Reflexions sur un ouvrage de Vladimir Propp.” Cahiers de l'Institut de science économique appliquée 99 (March 1960).

McDowell, Deborah E. “The Changing Same”: Black Women's Literature, Criticism, and Theory. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995.

Meyer, Susan. Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women's Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1996.

Modleski, Tania. The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory. New York: Methuen, 1988.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Methuen, 1985.

Nicholson, Linda. Introduction. The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory. Ed. Linda Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1997. 1-5.

Propp, V. I. Morphology of the Folktale. 1928. Trans. Laurence Scott, rev. Louis A. Wagner. Austin: U of Texas P, 1968.

Razack, Sherene H. Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race, and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1998.

Rebecca. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. The Selznick Studio, 1940.

Samuels, Robert. Hitchcock's Bi-Textuality: Lacan, Feminisms, and Queer Theory. Albany: State U of New York P, 1998.

Scott, Joan Wallach, ed. Women's Studies on the Edge. Spec. issue of differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 9.3 (Fall 1997).

Sharpe, Jenny. Allegories of Empire: The Figure of Woman in the Colonial Text. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Spelman, Elizabeth V. Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Boston: Beacon P, 1988.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” Critical Inquiry 12 (1985): 243-61.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

Wiegman, Robyn. “What Ails Feminist Criticism: A Second Opinion.” Critical Inquiry 25 (Winter 1999): 362-79.

Willis, Sharon. Marguerite Duras: Writing on the Body. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987.

Lorna Sage (review date 18 May 2000)

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SOURCE: Sage, Lorna. “Mother's Back.” London Review of Books 22, no. 10 (18 May 2000): 37-8.

[In the following review, Sage contrasts Moi's early feminist theories with the themes of What Is a Woman?]

Feminism is fiftysomething if you start counting from The Second Sex, and, like Toril Moi, a lot of academic women are taking stock. The good news is that wherever positive discrimination in favour of men has been suspended, there are many more women in universities than there used to be, as students, teachers and even tenured professors. What's been lost is the sense of connection with utopian politics. Part of the fiftyish feeling is to do with having to recognise that the future—that future, the classless, melting-pot, unisex, embarrassing one—is now in the past. Or, more painfully, that it has been hijacked by obscurantism and academic careerism, which often amount to the same thing.

What Is a Woman?: And Other Essays deplores this development. Moi is in a tricky position, however, for she herself is widely seen as one of the villains of the piece: the woman who trashed sisterhood in her 1985 book Sexual/Textual Politics by preaching post-structuralist demolition of the whole person, and dismissing American feminists as naive empiricists. ‘With friends like these, does feminism need enemies?’ Susan Gubar asks with uncharacteristic bitterness in her new stock-taking book Critical Condition. Clearly Moi is unforgiven, even though she has partly recanted. For instance: she used to argue that ‘all efforts towards a definition of woman are destined to be essentialist.’ Now she thinks definition is a red herring, and wields the very word ‘woman’ like a weapon. This will not endear her to the women whose work she so influentially pigeonholed. Nor will her insistence that her former savagery was fuelled by a euphoric sense that conflict was exciting and feminist writing should be rash, hand to mouth and excessive. This was intellectual life after all, and vive la différence. No harm was done, we were all playing the same game, weren't we? The moment fed, she says now, a recurring ‘fantasy of being able to speak in a way that would genuinely be all-inclusive. … The fantasy is one of merger, in which one would not have the problem of separating one's voice from that of others, so that, ultimately, it would not matter who was speaking.’

Well, it has turned out to matter. The essays that make up this new book examine the question of how to speak for yourself, and not in quotation-marks as though you were the mouthpiece of an unstoppable dialectical process. Moi still recognises the author of Sexual/Textual Politics, but no longer accepts the way she operated, quoting with some incredulity herself quoting Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous. She/they were doing away with the old humanist self as ‘constructed’, in one of the book's most-quoted passages, ‘on the model of the self-contained powerful phallus’. Now, she says: ‘I don't think I can have believed this when I wrote it. I don't understand why every integral whole must be phallic … It doesn't help that I say I have it from Irigaray and Cixous. This in fact makes it worse.’ This new use of ‘I’ liberates her from having to pay lip-service to post-structuralist orthodoxy. She hasn't changed, she was just carried away, she implies, and there's no reason not to believe her. With hindsight, the first book's odd disapproving allusions to Cixous's personal style—‘ermine as emancipation’—take on more weight. There spoke the literal, serious and class-conscious Moi of the turn of the century, exasperated with the decadence and snobbishness of deconstruction—‘obscure, theoreticist, plagued by internal contradictions, mired in unnecessary philosophical and theoretical elaborations.’

The long title essay undertakes a patient, sometimes dogged diagnosis of how this impasse came about. Feminist theory took a wrong turn almost at the moment of its rebirth in the 1960s. Moi traces the problem to the enshrining of the sex/gender distinction, which was so useful as a bulwark against biological determinism, but developed a life of its own and spawned metaphysical pseudo-problems around the concrete historical body. Perhaps the most interesting encounter here is with the work of Judith Butler. Butler, too, finds the distinction between biological sex and gender specious, but she resolves it by arguing that sex is just as constructed as gender, thus (for Moi) compounding the damage. Butler's concept of ‘performativity’—the daily script that ends up being written on the body and makes a woman seem solidly a woman—brilliantly obscures the matter of self-making, of ‘a “doer behind the deed”, an agent who actually makes choices’: ‘In Butler's picture … sex becomes the inaccessible ground of gender, gender becomes completely disembodied, and the body itself is divorced from all meaning.’ There is nothing material in such arguments except language itself, Moi argues, and language works to cloud the issue: ‘Butler thinks of a woman as the ongoing production of a congealed ideological construct.’ What we need is a way out of these labyrinthine post-structuralist debates in which matter is an effect of power and ‘power becomes a principle that works in mysterious ways behind the veil of appearances.’

So how do we extricate ourselves? Moi argues that we need to go back to the future—back, in particular, to Simone de Beauvoir, whose phenomenological understanding of lived experience will provide a way out. Her 1994 book on Beauvoir, The Making of an Intellectual Woman, paid implicit tribute to the continuing relevance of Beauvoir's ideas, but now she applies them directly as a kind of alternative therapy for feminism's sick and fissile state. Beauvoir writes and thinks with awareness of ‘the concrete, historical body that loves, suffers and dies’. ‘Woman’, in the words of The Second Sex, ‘is not a fixed reality, but rather a becoming … the body is not a thing, it is a situation, it is our grasp on the world and a sketch of our projects.’ Moi concentrates on Beauvoir's language in order to rediscover her originality, and she often has cause to rewrite H. M. Parshley's English translation, as she does here, where he had the body as ‘a limiting factor’ rather than a ‘sketch’, there-by importing (she argues) a traditional idea of consciousness as merely inhabiting the body. Beauvoir's woman is realistically ambiguous, a sex-gender amphibian, subject both to natural laws and to the human production of meaning, ‘a synthesis of facticity and freedom’: ‘The fact that Beauvoir refuses to hand the concept of “woman” over to the opposition is what makes The Second Sex such a liberating read.’ Beauvoir's woman—resembling her author—invents herself. Not freely, or fantastically, in a void, but in a style of resistance and scepticism. This is what Moi is after: a theoretical position that gives us back the notion of agency. She returns again and again to the same point: ‘Each woman will make something out of what the world makes out of her’ is a sentence that recurs with minor variations at least half a dozen times.

Moi in fact has come to resemble Beauvoir in her distaste for anything that might smack of self-pity or titivation: she would rather repeat herself than doll the idea up in different words. The second big essay in this book—‘“I Am a Woman”: The Personal and the Philosophical’—comes at the argument about how to get the whole person on the page from a different angle. It looks at the fashion for saying ‘I’ in academe that started with Jane Tompkins's 1989 essay ‘Me and My Shadow’, in which Tompkins confesses to finding theoretical writing ‘incredibly alienating’: ‘I love writers who write about their own experience. I feel I am being nourished by them.’ Philosophy—i.e. theory of any kind—is male and arrogant, on this view; or to put it less personally, Post-Modern thinking pictures all knowledge as located: you have to say where you're coming from because (in Linda Alcoff's immortal words) ‘a speaker's location is epistemologically salient.’ Moi has a fairly easy time exposing the double-think involved here (‘in order to indulge in the luxury of the personal one needs to have tenure’) and showing how token or kitsch some of these supposedly vulnerable and personal excursions are. More seriously, you need to work hard to speak or write cogently in the first person, and to acknowledge that ‘there is always someone who is not speaking.’ Be your own woman. At the centre of the argument is a comparative analysis of the opening paragraphs of The Second Sex and Luce Irigaray's Speculum of the Other Woman, in which Moi is able to show convincingly that Irigaray's strategy of ventriloquism leaves very little space for readers to dissent, whereas Beauvoir's ‘I’ lets in the ordinary, partial perspective. For Irigaray, a woman under patriarchy is doomed to mimicry, locked up in a language not hers; for Moi, one of the major strategies of sexism is ‘to imprison women in their subjectivity’ in just this way.

This second long essay complements the first. Just because Moi has had enough of theoreticism, as she now scornfully calls it, doesn't mean that she is anti-theoretical in currently correct style either. Confessionalism, she concludes, has become an academic sub-genre like any other, which is unsurprising, since it is ‘a theory-generated attempt to escape from the bad effects of theory’. The problem was the way we posed the problem. What she wants is a radical spring-clean of feminist thinking. Let's go back and start again, we have nothing to lose but our mind-forged manacles. Beauvoir was a freelance, an independent, and Moi is too, in spirit—not a deconstructionist, more of a righteous wrecker. Beauvoir told her eager biographer Deirdre Bair (who came to resent her superior glumness, if you read between the lines) that when she wrote The Second Sex she was ‘the messenger assumed her mantle. So although she laments the reluctance of feminist theoreticians to listen to arguments that don't speak the right language (use the right quotation-marks), she can hardly be surprised. Beauvoir's own reception by later feminists was spectacularly mixed; among the most prestigious, like Cixous and Irigaray, it was violently hostile. Moi notes here the ‘snub’ Cixous delivered by simply never mentioning Beauvoir in her contribution to the special issue of the magazine l'Arc dedicated to Beauvoir in 1975. Beauvoir was already dead and buried, for Cixous. ‘Beauvoir is not an enemy … she is no one, nothing.’ Antoinette Fouque in a 1986 obituary article in Libération accused Beauvoir of ‘intolerant, assimilating, sterilising universalism, full of hatred and reductive of otherness’. There doesn't quote as many as she could. Annie Leclerc, for instance, who has described her 1974 book Parole de femme as ‘an anti-Second Sex’, sets her own version of textual bliss against Beauvoir's bleak view of the hard labour of reproduction: ‘To be this vagina, an open eye in life's nocturnal fermentation, an ear alive to the pulse, the vibration of the originating magma’. This is enough to send one back with relief to Beauvoir's trenchant description of the colossal bad faith of women who choose charm and bad writing.

These days, Anglo-American feminists, too, would mostly agree that Beauvoir has nothing to say to them. She didn't know she was ‘different’ is the line. Moi thinks that quite a lot of this stems from generational rage, rubbing out mother. Indeed, she intellectual life, and that you can see it in relations between male thinkers—for example, in the relations of Bourdieu and Derrida to Sartre, and of René Girard to Freud. So perhaps there's nothing specifically female or feminist about the bind that theory has got itself into. Battling her way out of the forest of quotation-marks, Moi turns to Freud himself and one of his most quoted phrases, ‘Anatomy is destiny,’ which is a travestied version of what Napoleon said to Goethe: ‘What does one want destiny for now … Politics is destiny.’ In other words, Freud is inviting us to think about what destiny means in the modern world: he probably didn't intend to say that anatomy overrides human agency, though it may well ironise it. Moi's argument is characteristically detailed and lucid, and arrives at a reading of the Freud texts (he misquoted Napoleon twice, first apropos of all human beings, later just women) that avoids bringing in timeless and ineluctable fate by the skin of its teeth. History and contingency count, she wants to say: indeed, Freud was a man of his time in his ‘tendency to think of male sexuality as fairly easy to investigate, and to cast female sexual difference as an unsolvable mystery’. By this stage in the argument—and in the book, which only has three short literary essays on courtly love and (again) Beauvoir's brief novel, The Woman Destroyed, to go—we're out of the wood, and the moral is clear. Don't settle for getting used to the dark, don't write yourself further into the undergrowth, perversely addictive though it is. Hack your way through the thickets of theory.

What Is a Woman? is a kind of Pilgrim's Progress: most of the other critics and theorists you meet on the way represent obstacles or sophistical tempters—or as in Freud's case have to be lent on to yield a usable meaning. One of the exceptions is the social theorist Pierre Bourdieu, whose remark ‘One cannot liberate the victims of symbolic violence by decree’ Moi takes very seriously. What it means is that you have to spell out the arguments step by step, and that even then the class-system in the intellectual world, which rations attention, and ensures that those who already have symbolic capital tend to accrue more, makes it hard for dissent to get a hearing. Another friendly presence is Wittgenstein: ‘A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.’ And another phrase of his—‘language on holiday’: that is, language that's not doing an honest day's work—serves to describe what she so distrusts in deconstruction's style: if people have fun rattling their intellectual shackles, that's even worse. Like Beauvoir, Moi is the messenger who brings the bad news. ‘No, we have not won the game.’ Put these words of Beauvoir's into her mouth, and they come out sounding right. What Is a Woman? is written out of a prim passion for freedom. For a book that argues for the resurrection of Woman, it is shamelessly individualist. No wonder Toril Moi is regarded by some feminist scholars as the new enemy, the enemy within. But her energy is positive and provocative, and in the best sense old-fashioned—modern, utopian, enlightened, or at least of a kind to let in the grey day.

Diana Knight (review date September 2000)

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SOURCE: Knight, Diana. Review of What Is a Woman?, by Toril Moi. Modern Language Notes 115, no. 4 (September 2000): 827-30.

[In the following review, Knight evaluates the themes of What Is a Woman?]

Faced with the less than warm American reception of her Sexual/Textual Politics (1985), Toril Moi always denied that she had set out to advance the claims of high French feminism (abstract, theoretical) at the expense of its more lowly Anglo-American counterpart (pragmatic, empirical). Rather, she thought she had written a critique of both in the light of a politically committed materialist feminism. Nevertheless, a number of American feminists—unappreciative perhaps of an academic style that Moi associates with Britain in the early eighties, where pleasurable intellectual friendships could be marked by “intense intellectual disagreements carried over from the seminar room to the pub” (261)—chose to remain offended, equating female-authored critique with unsisterly betrayal. With hindsight Moi identifies an institutionally determined context of “fears and anxieties” that confused professional and emotional support with intellectual agreement. As long as ideas are treated with respect and not reduced to the person advancing them (the ad feminam mode of debate to which Moi, herself its occasional victim, remains “particularly allergic”), “feminists do each other a service by producing serious and searching critiques of the foundations of feminist work.” As she most reasonably claims, “it is impossible to advance feminist intellectual work without engaging with other feminists” (259-60).

It is to be hoped that What Is a Woman?, Moi's long-awaited re-entry into the lists of mainstream feminist debate, will not be perceived as a reopening of hostilities. Moi shows herself extraordinarily attentive to the work of American feminists, even if she dismisses many of their arguments. And it is indeed arguments that are targeted in her two flagship essays (on sex/gender debates and on the place of the personal in theory), rather than the two women with whom she most explicitly engages (Judith Butler and Jane Tompkins respectively). After all, for all her unease with the reigning theoretical doxa—the decontextualizing deconstruction challenged in “What Is a Woman?,” the confessional academic writing, legitimized by versions of identity politics, confronted in “I Am a Woman”—Moi has chosen the United States as intellectual arena and context for her own theoretical evolution. If, as she claims, the American University remains dominated by an ungrounded poststructuralism, she has certainly chosen a demanding testing ground for her increasingly confident espousal of a different tradition of thought. This is a tradition whereby the foregrounded subject is a subject of praxis (both the subject of acts and the subject of speech acts), and whereby the psychoanalysis of Freud, Lacan and Kristeva has been joined by the sociology of Bourdieu, the existentialism of Sartre and Beauvoir and, increasingly, by the ordinary language philosophy of Wittgenstein, Austin and Cavell.

That Moi is determined not so much to be right as to get the arguments right, is demonstrated by her disarming identification of her own momentary “failures of voice” in Sexual/Textual Politics. Of her equation of an integrated humanist self with the “self-contained powerful phallus” she declares: “I don't think I can have believed this when I wrote it” (xi), while her decision to close the book with a quotation from Derrida (when she did not consider herself a deconstructionist) is deemed a good example of “theoretical alienation” (xii) which not surprisingly gave rise to misunderstandings. Above all she sees that she sometimes wrote as if it was self-evident that some theoretical idea or other was “intrinsically bad for feminist politics.” It is this “theoreticism,” with its parallel policing of the theoretically correct positions that are supposedly good for feminist politics, that forms one of the main targets of Moi's new essays. As far as her own work is concerned, these essays are an attempt to work her way out “from under poststructuralism” and to see what happens “when one goes elsewhere” (xii).

Now distanced (in time at least) from the unemployed, would-be academic freshly arrived in Britain from the “Norwegian fjords” (xv), Toril Moi possesses the intellectual capital to say what she thinks, however unfashionable, and to place that capital at the service of her bold rehabilitation of the theoretical importance of Beauvoir's feminism. Though Moi invests considerable mental energy in taking apart received or opposing views, she argues her way through to a position whereby she can unashamedly declare her radical disinterest in the concept of identity, logically refusing (since she is similarly disinterested in the “foundational claims of deconstruction”) either to posit identity or deconstruct it—it is quite simply not a concept that she uses. At stake is her right to follow Beauvoir in bringing a materialist feminist agenda to bear on the word “woman,” which means refusing to be forced into a false choice of “being a woman through and through at all times and in all circumstances” (xi), or of having to deny that one is a woman at all (for fear of the obligatory accusations of biological determinism, essentialism or metaphysical grounding). The titular “What Is a Woman?,” borrowed like “I Am a Woman” from ten pivotal lines of the opening paragraphs of The Second Sex, is an explicit challenge to American feminist orthodoxy. But it is a challenge issued only at the end of a sustained and immensely careful labor of thought: “to be able to reach the conclusion that we do not have to assume that there is anything intrinsically wrong with the word ‘woman’ was immensely liberating to me. I hope it will be to others too.” (x)

One of the more controversial aspects of this liberating conclusion is Moi's claim that the ritually paired concepts of sex and gender “are useless starting points for a theory of the body and subjectivity,” and that poststructuralist deconstructors of the sex/gender binary are prisoners of “theoretical mirages of their own making” (46). Rather than wasting so much time trying to think through and beyond the pitfalls of obviously flawed concepts, it would make sense to look around for better ones. For it is the reduction of sexed human beings to the sum total of sex and gender—“to be nothing but sex, or nothing but gender” (35), so that all that is not one is the other, and vice versa—that reduces woman to nothing but her sexual difference (biological and/or ideologically imposed), and leads to the omission of all the other things that shape the experience of being of one sex or another. It is Moi's project to show that there are more useful ways of arriving “at a highly historicized and concrete understanding of bodies and subjectivity” (46), not least because absolutely nothing logically follows (either socially, psychologically or philosophically) from the fact that there are biological bases for categorizing human beings into two sexes. But equally “no particular understanding of subjectivity or identity follows from the fact of denying that biological facts justify social norms” (57). Moi makes the convincing and very important point that Judith Butler (like many others) misreads Beauvoir's famous declaration that “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman” when she glosses it as follows: “Simone de Beauvoir distinguishes sex from gender and suggests that gender is an aspect of identity gradually acquired.” In fact, if correctly read, Beauvoir offers a powerful alternative to this falsely imposed grid. In taking the sexed (female) body as the non-normative starting point of her phenomenological analysis of what woman is—the body as “situation” not destiny, situation understood not as an externally imposed structure but as an “irreducible amalgam of the freedom (projects) of that subject and the conditions in which that freedom finds itself” (74)—it never occurs to Beauvoir that human beings could be divided into a natural and a cultural part. Woman therefore “exists,” but in the existential sense of an open-ended becoming. Butler, on the other hand, conflates “woman” with gender, regards gender as the mere discursive effect of an oppressive social power structure, and therefore concludes that woman “must be deconstructed.” For Moi, “the fact that Beauvoir refuses to hand the concept of ‘woman’ over to the opposition, is precisely what makes The Second Sex such a liberating read.”

Moi's decision to use the particular case of Beauvoir as the vehicle of her debate with American feminism (as it has developed since the publication of Sexual/Textual Politics) is visibly overdetermined. In “The Challenge of the Particular Case,” an essay on Bourdieu published in 1997, Moi describes the latter as belonging to a tradition of thought where the concrete example should not be seen as a secondary illustration of a general rule, but as the primary place “where thought happens, where theoretical questions get raised, elaborated, and answered” (302). That Beauvoir is a fine example of this tradition is illustrated superbly by Moi's reading of the third paragraph of The Second Sex, where Beauvoir, by taking women's concrete, ordinary existence as the starting point for philosophical argument, and by making her own experience exemplary (for the light it can shed on a general question), is shown to invent a way of “doing philosophy” in which the personal and the philosophical are intrinsically linked (207). While Moi finds contemporary American debates about the personal and the theoretical predictable and conceptually impoverished, it is precisely because the opening pages of Beauvoir's text are fully marked by her subjectivity—staking her right to be taken seriously as a philosopher on stating “I am a woman”—that they are “uniquely powerful as philosophy” (235). Thus Moi has successfully shown by example that close attention to a particular case (the opening of The Second Sex) “can produce serious theoretical insights” (247). Yet clearly Moi has also discovered in Beauvoir's essay a concrete example that can do almost infinite theoretical work for her, as if all the philosophy and feminism she could ever need might be drawn from its pages by the very intensity of her reading. And if the third new essay of Moi's volume, a close reading of Freud's infamous question, “Is Anatomy Destiny?,” promises a more sustained future engagement with Freud's writing on femininity and sexual difference, I personally hope that this too might be staged as a dialogue with The Second Sex. For the missed encounter of Beauvoir and Freud is surely one of the lost (apparently lost?) opportunities of twentieth-century thought. I cannot conceive of a better investigator than Toril Moi to uncover the complexities of the case.

Meryl Altman (review date October 2000)

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SOURCE: Altman, Meryl. “Reality Check.” Women's Review of Books 18, no. 1 (October 2000): 6-7.

[In the following review, Altman assesses the themes and style of What Is a Woman?, noting the relevance of Moi's readings of Beauvoir's thought to current feminist theory.]

What we need today more than ever is a feminism committed to seeking justice and equality for women, in the most ordinary sense of the word. … That feminism, I am happy to say, exists. Moreover, usually even the most anti-metaphysical feminist theorists support it in practice. No feminist I know is incapable of understanding what it means to say that the Taliban are depriving Afghan women of their most elementary human rights just because they are women.

(p. 9)

Yes. But can “today” really be the year 2000? And can the author of these words really be Toril Moi? Maybe there's hope for feminist theory after all.

Toril Moi's first book, a little primer of feminist literary criticism called Sexual/Textual Politics (1983), sold a lot of copies and made a lot of people very angry, including me. Moi's scathing dismissals of most American approaches to criticism, including lesbian studies and the critiques offered by women of color, as “phallogocentric” and tied to naïvely undeconstructed conceptions of “the unified self,” seemed to demand that we abandon political approaches to literature in favor of Kristevan meanderings about subversive textualities. The field has yet to recover from this setback.

I was not alone in finding the tone of Sexual/Textual Politics unnecessarily contentious and contemptuous. But in 1996 Moi published Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman, a lovely, articulate, informative book, firm-minded but sympathetic, responsibly historical, attentive to textual detail. One of the very best efforts in the current renaissance in Beauvoir studies, this book taught me more than almost any other, not just about Beauvoir, but about how literary criticism could still be made to do feminist work. But that book had so little to say about theory with a capital T that it almost left one wondering whether there could be two Toril Mois.

Now we have this complex huge doorstop of a book, What Is a Woman?: And Other Essays. It's really two books: the first, a substantive new piece of work exploring Beauvoir's continuing value for feminism, the other a loosely connected set of essays on topics ranging from Tristan and Iseult to Pierre Bourdieu. And here the real Toril Moi stands up (at least I hope so) as one of the most astute and lucid critics writing today. What she calls her “attempt to work [her] way out from under post-structuralism, and to see what happens when one goes elsewhere”—a move undertaken in good faith as a feminist and with uncommon critical common sense—points a way forward, both for literary critics and other feminists.

It would be impossible to exaggerate the sense of relief this book gave me. A theorist famous for critical sophistication and range argues persuasively in print what I've been thinking: compared to what passes for feminist theory now, existentialism looks pretty darn good.

Moi shares my puzzlement that feminists have not read or have misread Beauvoir, that the theoretical establishment (feminist and/or philosophical) seems not to have noticed what my undergraduates have no trouble seeing—to wit, that every meaningful dilemma that has arisen between Wollstonecraft and the year 2000 can be usefully explored using Beauvoir's lens. According to Moi, “post-structuralist theorists of sex and gender are held prisoners by theoretical mirages of their own making”: what ails feminist theory is mostly self-inflicted. Meanwhile Beauvoir still offers us, or offers us again, neither a feminism of equality, nor a feminism of difference, but a feminism of freedom that dares to speak its name. Why not take up the chance to “use the word woman without having to blush,” the invitation to “make theory fun again”?

And yet there is no retreat into anti-intellectualism here. Moi's book is a serious attempt to get to the bottom of something that matters, rather than a set of elegant evasions and euphemisms, dancing on the shimmering but ever-shrinking surface of the head of a pin. One ought to be able to ask, in testing a theory, how powerful it is—how much of the world does it help explain—and how useful it is—how it works to solve the problems actually confronting women today and to move toward the better world we are hoping to build. “Any theory of subjectivity that fails when confronted with a concrete case is not going to be able to tell us much about what it means to be a man or a woman today.” Moi's disagreements, more tightly argued than I can indicate here, could serve as a lucid introduction to recent theoretical debates, and also as a farewell to them.

The book's main theoretical contribution is to point various ways around, or rather away from, the aridity of the essentialism vs. anti-essentialism wrangle, with its resulting agonies about “agency” and “the real.” By retracing the history of the distinction most feminists now make between sex and gender, Moi shows how crucial this distinction is to opposing the notion that women are determined by their biology in any particular way. But she also points out that Beauvoir was able to oppose that notion quite successfully without making any such distinction; she asks why a determinism of the body ought to be more fearsome to feminists than other sorts of determinisms (religious, ethical, cultural); and she questions the centrality of the sex/gender distinction to current theory, especially given the contortions around subjectivity and “the body” that result.

In its place she outlines and re-proposes Beauvoir's notion of the body as a situation—“the instrument of our grasp on the world,” in Merleau-Ponty's phrase, the ground and basis of “lived experience” for both women and men. “Our flesh comes to us through history,” but it is still, recognizably, flesh. In a careful reading of the opening chapter of The Second Sex Moi gives us back what Beauvoir actually said about the body, which is basically, yes, men and women are different: So what? Many things have followed, from sexual difference and embodiment, but no particular thing need follow from it in any concrete instance. The important thing about the Beauvoirean body is that it isn't just a sexual body. It eats, it sleeps, it dies, it climbs trees. Sometimes the most important thing to notice about it is that it's the body of a woman, or of a man, and sometimes that's not the most important thing.

My suspicion is that most feminists will continue to find the distinction between sex and gender helpful in everyday use—particularly if we live and work where the understanding that biology doesn't trump all other sorts of explanations of behavior cannot be taken for granted. Still, permission to stop worrying about it so much—to stop worrying it to death—does feel like a breath of fresh air in a very stale room.

Moi still makes big claims. But here she develops them through careful close readings, sensitive to both historical context and textual nuance. While she continues to maintain that the right to disagree openly, to argue, to think and say, are crucial to feminism as to the life of the mind generally, she offers the views of even those she disagrees with with refreshing clarity, fulfilling the first task of the teacher, which is to be a good explainer.

While the “return to Beauvoir” is the book's main theme, she is not the only authority invoked here. Moi also mobilizes Bourdieu, Freud, Wittgenstein, “ordinary language” philosophy, logic and common sense. It's almost her Complete Essays, stretching back to a graduate-school paper on Andreas Capellanus, and arranged more or less in reverse chronological order—which is a bit disconcerting, since issues are sometimes raised that were seemingly resolved earlier in the book.

A pack rat myself, I understand the impulse to include everything and envy the accumulation of cultural capital that makes it possible, but there is some resulting sacrifice of overall coherence. As Beauvoir's friend Zaza, caught between the Catholic moralism of her mother and the intellectual fearlessness of her friends, observed: “les choses que j'aimaient, ne s'aimaient pas entre elles”—the things I like don't all like one another. Freud (a very old friend of Moi's) and Bourdieu (a rather new one) might be a bit less comfortable, and behave a bit less well, at this party honoring Simone than the hostess might hope. But Moi's justification for inviting, or as she says, “appropriating,” them is impeccable: they'll come in any case. “… genuinely revolutionary work has always taken as its starting point the tradition it wishes to transform. … All intellectual statements, whether by Aristotle or Plato or Woolf and Beauvoir, require rethinking in new circumstances. We always read with an eye to what we need and what we can use. What other way is there? Intellectual life is appropriation.”

Moi is perhaps too quick to dismiss the problem of whether “the master's tools can demolish the master's house.” That debate was really about who had access to academic and cultural institutions, who had the right and was empowered to speak, as much as it was about the possibility of feminist autonomy. Still non-trivial questions. But I think she is correct to observe that one ought first to inquire what the task is and then use whatever tools come to hand. Any valuable insight of major proportions can be reached by more than one road; most of the places feminists have gone by way of Foucault can be approached through Beauvoir, usefully detouring around the vexed problem of agency his work raises. The real question might be whether to appropriate the master's tools means to acknowledge him (or her) as one's master. The worst mistake is to spend so much time collecting and polishing the tools, and boasting that you have better tools than others, that you forget entirely that there was a house to build in the first place. This is what Moi means by “theoreticism.” If we all agree the nail needs hammering in, hammer it with the heel of your shoe and move on to the next nail.

Questions of subjectivity, and of style and tone, converge in a discussion about using the personal voice, that inevitably returning repressed Other of theoretical purism. In several essays here, a defense of the right to object to what seems wrong and to think and speak seriously about difficult things leads to a thoughtful distinction between narcissistic uses of the personal voice and more honest ways it can correct for over-abstraction. Like Moi, I too have come to find the “adversary paradigm” less irritating and more politically defensible than the woolly-minded all-embracing civility that cushions “us” against being asked hard questions, both on grounds of a J. S. Mill-like view that truth emerges from controversy and on Beauvoir-type grounds of honesty and authenticity. Beauvoir was not the only girl who noticed that you had to choose, not always but a lot of the time, between being smart and being nice; she decided that the second alternative destroyed both the mind and the heart …

The personal, more or less clearly labelled such, ought to come into an intellectual argument when it clarifies or advances that argument; otherwise, not. That is Moi's practice; it was more or less Beauvoir's practice in The Second Sex, I hope it has been mine. If we're clearer about what the point of writing theory is supposed to be, maybe we can be clearer about using “the personal” as a means to that end, rather than as an end in itself.

One theoretical aporia remains. Excuse me. I mean, there was one place where I still couldn't agree, an unsolved problem I find crucial. Moi offers a fine theory of subjectivity, of “I”; but how are we supposed to get from “I” to “we”? In the 1940s Beauvoir could sketch no collectivity; all gatherings of women she'd encountered pre-1948 still seemed to her (and were) bourgeois, collusive and a little suspect. Freud was not interested in this problem except insofar as political collectivities seem to have struck him as mystifications or “cover stories” for something else. Bourdieu's apparent answer—that praxis is a sort of game—is too cynical, for my taste at least. Not every book can solve all problems even if it is 500 pages long. But if the goal of feminist theory is usefulness in concrete cases, a theory that leaves out the question of how groups can form and press for change leaves more work to be done.

While we're waiting, what emerges? Well … The reports of the death of the self were greatly exaggerated. Read The Second Sex (all of it, in French if you can); take long views; practice random acts of concrete close reading and critical lucidity. Trust yourself, but remember the reader. And don't give up.

Mechthild E. Nagel (review date summer 2001)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1734

SOURCE: Nagel, Mechthild E. Review of What Is a Woman?, by Toril Moi. NWSA Journal 13, no. 2 (summer 2001): 213-17.

[In the following review, Nagel criticizes the politics of What Is a Woman?]

The three books under review [What Is a Woman? by Toril Moi, Whiteness: Feminist Philosophical Reflections, edited by Chris Cuomo and Kim Hall, and Shadowboxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics, by Joy James] highlight the diversity of commitments to feminist “practice” in contemporary U.S. academia. Moi's liberal feminist analysis argues that the definition of woman is at stake in much of feminist theory, and she is intent on showing that Simone de Beauvoir is too quickly dismissed as essentialist by poststructuralist feminists such as Judith Butler. Moi gives lipservice to integrated approaches which are cited in footnotes. But her analysis falls back to the additive approach, i.e., that oppressions can be added on, which is characteristic of many white feminist texts, including Beauvoir's. Cuomo and Hall's anthology, on the other hand, shares Joy James's political commitment to an integrative analytic of race and sexual politic (as opposed to Moi's additive approach), and both texts are accessible to a general political audience; they seem especially useful to antiracist feminist activists. However, they follow a different conceptual path. Whiteness gives the reader snapshot narratives at combating racial prejudice, while Shadowboxing focuses on critiquing systemic discrimination. Of the three books, however, Whiteness clearly is the most theoretically accessible to undergraduate students and gives them a good starting point to personally struggle against white supremacy.

In recent years, some feminists have turned their gaze away from the “linguistic turn” and returned to the body and the structures of desire. Foucault is out, Lacan is back; and gender performance is replaced by the old-fashioned trope of sexual difference. Lacanian feminists, such as Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks (2000) and Joan Kopjec (1994), criticize Foucauldian scholar Judith Butler's historicism and constructivist approach of power. What Is a Woman?: And Other Essays follows this theoretical shift. Moi's book is mostly a collection of previously published essays written in the last two decades. Toril Moi, whose Sexual/Textual Politics (1985) caused much controversy among U.S. feminists because it was perceived to be dismissive of certain feminist literary theory, picks up the thread of psychoanalytic discourse in What Is a Woman? In two previously unpublished essays included in this collection, Moi provides a close textual analysis of the phenomenological project of Simone de Beauvoir. Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1953), was something of a lightening rod for the second wave of Anglo-American feminists. Moi's careful reading of key passages provides an important resource for feminist theory courses which use Beauvoir's classic. Moi's analysis goes awry in her merciless attack on some poststructuralist writings. Judith Butler is singled out and serves as the spectre in Moi's essays, which is not surprising given Butler's formidable critique of Beauvoir's Second Sex in Gender Trouble (1990). Moi argues that Beauvoir's phenomenological analysis of the conditions of sexism is not essentialist, and faults Butler for a deliberate misreading of the famous thesis “One Is Not Born a Woman.” Beauvoir does not give the reader a clear sex/gender or nature/culture distinction, and furthermore, Moi argues that Beauvoir's anti-essentialist, non-normative construct of woman is analytically and politically superior to Butler's description of woman as gender: “For Butler a woman is gender, and gender is simply an effect of an oppressive social power structure. In short, Butler's concept of gender does not encompass the concrete, historical and experiencing body” (75). This seems to me a deliberate misreading of Gender Trouble. It is curious to lambast a philosopher who takes Hegel and Foucault as inspirations while ignoring historical contextuality of bodies and identities. Moi's continuous attack is in catchy, polemic phrases, such as “for Butler, ‘power’ functions as the secret principle of all meaning, just as ‘spirit’ does for an idealist philosopher” (76). Clearly, the intent of such strawman argumentation is to suggest that Beauvoir invites emancipatory feminist politics, whereas Butler's bleak discussions of gender oppression forecloses it. Moi's discussion of Butler's misinterpretation of Beauvoir ends with a Wittgensteinian move for more clarity and philosophical therapy (120). While Moi indeed does a good job in “clearing up conceptual fog” and heeds her own warning of not getting lost in meaningless obfuscations, I find her polemics against Butler's “political correct theoreticism” unproductive (59). To be sure, Moi's analysis is clear prose, yet more troubling is that she invokes a politics of freedom and unalienated existence and relishes aesthetic, quietist politics rather than those contesting oppressive social norms and acting in solidarity with subaltern subjects. Shadowboxing and Whiteness seem to hold out for such promising political moves.

It is instructive to compare Joy James's Shadowboxing to Cuomo and Hall's Whiteness because both books give the reader different vantage points for tackling whiteness in a racist society such as the United States. Whiteness is a collection by (mostly) feminist philosophers living in the United States, most of whom trained in the analytic (as opposed to continental) philosophical tradition. Moving accounts of guilt, whether in the form of white angst or of passing as white, are played out against heroic resistance of whiteness on a bus in Little Rock, Arkansas, and against the temptation of passing as white in a taxi-cab. The editors stress that white feminist philosophers need to take responsibility for racism and white privilege, and their analyses and examples notably attest to that commitment. Whiteness gives examples of personal narrative struggles. The emphasis is on white supremacy and antiracism, not on liberal notions of colorblindness and nonracialism.

While I am sympathetic to that conceptual framework, the writers' emphasis on personal experience does, for the most part, not give guidance for how Caucasians can learn to act against white supremacy. Alison Bailey boldly asserts that privilege can in fact be used to undo racism, but her solution is not far-reaching enough. Writing about her advocacy for a student at the financial aid office, she notes: “Using privilege as resource requires that Nina and I sit down together and find ways of calling attention to the racist suppositions of the administrators in ways that foreground her interests and her perspective” (101). Student-teacher relationships are fraught with hierarchical issues, not sufficiently theorized in this essay. It is unclear to me how one's professional status does not come into play. Bailey's analysis would have benefited from activist handbooks, such as Paul Kivel's guide to antiracism, which is not mentioned in this anthology (1996). Whiteness foregrounds individual unlearning of racism which is very similar to the famous Peg McIntosh account on white privilege as invisible knapsack (2000). While contributor Naomi Zack is critical on the emphasis of white privilege, she does not provide an analysis of whites' antiracist struggle, whereas Joy James highlights the contributions of white revolutionaries in their collective struggle against racism. Moreover, essays introduced by Cuomo and Hall as expressively activist, retreat to an individualist stance of aesthetic observation rather than exemplifying individual or collective intervention. Amy Edgington encourages readers to form groups and write letters to the editor, but, from a revolutionary perspective, such as Joy James's, this is a “safe” liberal endeavor, not one that would necessarily jolt white editors out of their comfort zone. It is disappointing that none of the contributors writes specifically about collective struggles against white supremacy.

Political theorist Joy James, who is trained in continental philosophy, provides the reader with a valuable book on revolutionary feminism, foregrounding the legacy of black feminist struggles. In the chapter “Warrior Tropes,” she writes: “The focus here is on women who uniformly considered themselves ‘antiracists’ but not necessarily ‘feminists’ yet who nevertheless expanded antiracist women's politics, community development, democratic power, and radical leadership. Given the primacy of movements in the formation and articulation of black female militancy, history plays a central role in contemporary analyses” (12).

Shadowboxing continues Joy James's relentless critique of the ideology of the Talented Tenth. The black intelligentsia has acquiesced to the role of a managerial caste. James's new work focuses on the intellectual marginalization and commodified iconization of radical or revolutionary women, such as Angela Davis or Assata Shakur. The trope shadowboxing refers to the ambiguous positionality of black feminists insofar as their struggle against racism and sexism often finds them being at odds with white feminists and black civil rights activists. Joy James notes, “Shadowboxing struggles with primal drives and the status of African American women as companion-challengers to a dysfunctional democracy. Rather than showcase black feminism-as-spectacle, it attempts to unlock the glass case of the American shadowbox that restricts, but has never shielded, the African female resistance displayed” (13-14). This book is an important contribution to black feminist thought. It is a first attempt, as far as I can tell, to clarify the diverging ideological commitments among black feminist or womanist approaches to praxis. James's book Transcending the Talented Tenth already hinted at such differences, e.g., by contrasting theorists Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks with radical activists Ella Baker and Ida B. Wells. Shadowboxing clarifies that black feminist thought is not monolithic. James differentiates among three main perspectives in the chapter, “Radicalizing Feminisms from the ‘Movement’ Era.” She singles out liberal, radical, and revolutionary feminist tendencies and makes no secret of favoring revolutionary commitments. In a particularly original section, she focuses on the pitfalls of mainstreaming radicalism. She notes that recently the corporate left has reigned in radical movements and radical academics. Philanthropic enterprises are not held accountable and have in fact helped to “deradicalize feminism and antiracism” (85).

Shadowboxing and Whiteness are books that ought to be taught in interdisciplinary seminars on feminist theories and practice. Both books showcase important analytic developments in recent feminist thought to theorize the intersections among race, class, and gender.


Beauvoir, Simone de. 1953. The Second Sex. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge Press.

Copjec, Joan. 1994. Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

James, Joy. 1997. Transcending the Talented Tenth. New York: Routledge Press.

Kivel, Paul. 1996. Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice. Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society.

McIntosh, Peggy. 2000. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women's Studies.” In Race, Clan, and Gender, 4th ed., eds. M. Anderson, and P. Hill Collins. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Moi, Toril. 1985. Sexual/Textual Politics. London: Methuen.

Seshadri-Crooks, Kalpana. 2000. Desiring Whiteness. A Lacanian Analysis of Race. New York: Routledge.


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