Sexual Subversions
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Sexual Subversions

Elizabeth Grosz

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Sexual Subversions

Elizabeth Grosz

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About This Book

Sexual Subversions introduces the works of three well known, if not well-read, French feminists: Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and Micele Le Doeuff. It provides a map of an area where there are few detailed discussion of the achievements of these difficult, yet immensely rewarding, writers. In doing so, this overview raises issues of general relevance to feminist research: it participates in debates around the nature of feminist theory, the relations feminist intellectuals have to male dominated knowledges, and the strategies appropriate for developing non patriarchal, autonomous or woman-centred knowledges. No book in French feminists would be complete without including the contributions of Kristeva and Irigaray. The inclusion of Le Deouff's work, which brings a different perspective to bear on the question of sexual difference, provides a counterbalance to literary appropriations of French feminism by Anglo-American readerships. Kristeva, Irigaray and Le Deouff are the focal points of this study, precisely because each highlights the differences of the others, revealing the frameworks to which the others are committed. Nevertheless, while these writers do not present a common political or theoretical position or form a school, each addresses the question of women's autonomy from male definition, affirms the sexual specificity of women, seeks out a femininity women can use to question the patriarchal norms and ideals of femininity and rejects the preordained positions patriarchy allots to women.

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Chapter 1
Modern French philosophy

FRENCH philosophy has exerted a powerful, even disproportionate influence on the way contemporary politics is conceived. Kristeva, Irigaray and Le Doeuff form part of this current of influence. In considering the contributions of French feminists, it is not enough simply to position women’s writing as a revision or augmentation of male political theory. These feminists do not simply repeat the work of their intellectual predecessors; in each case their projects entail a particular rewriting and rereading of masculine positions and a thoroughgoing displacement and reorientation of their theoretical categories, presumptions and methods.
French theory is considered appealingly or irritatingly — depending on one’s taste—intellectualised and abstract; it seems peripheral to those committed to transforming women’s lives in more concrete or direct ways. While their various projects may not directly address many of the pragmatic issues facing women’s movements, nevertheless they may prove crucial in contesting the ways in which the world, everyday life and knowledges are understood. Kristeva, Le Doeuff and Irigaray provide neither handbooks for action, directions for political programs nor information directly applicable to day-to-day struggles. They say little of direct relevance to setting up women’s refuges or rape crisis centres. But they may indirectly provide a way of understanding women, women’s place in culture and women’s future possibilities in terms different from prevailing patriarchal depictions.
In this chapter I explore some of the intellectual background and theoretical context of contemporary French feminisms. This may help make their work more accessible to English-speaking feminists. Clearly this chapter can only provide the most general outlines of the numerous positions and issues raised in French political and intellectual life. Nevertheless, such a sketch may provide an outline of the space that feminists today contest and/or (re)claim in their attempts to develop non-patriarchal and non-oppressive knowledges.
Although we should begin an overview of contemporary French thought in the seventeenth century with Descartes and explore its development through Spinoza, Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche, I will only signal the relevance of these figures indirectly through outlining the controversies and different positions emerging in French politics and philosophy since the 1930s. Although earlier philosophical movements — from Cartesianism to Bergsonianism, associationism and utopian socialism — may illuminate the kinds of issues developed in the 1930s and after, these will not be elaborated here.
Following Vincent Descombes (1980), I divide modern French thought into two broad categories or generations, the first located in the traditions of humanism and structuralism (which begin with Descartes and Kant respectively, and, more recently are associated with Hegel, Heidegger and Husserl); the second dates from the 1960s, its major sources being the great antihumanists of the nineteenth century, Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. The second, 1960s generation (amongst whom Lacan, Althusser, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida are major figures) provides the immediate context within and against which the three feminists at the centre of this book, Kristeva, Irigaray and Le Doeuff, need to be positioned.

Kojève, Hippolyte and Hegel

Linking together the disparate fields of phenomenology and marxism is the figure of Alexandre Kojève, whose 1933—39 lectures on Hegel are preserved in his posthumously published text Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (1969). His lectures had an enormous impact on an entire generation of French intellectuals who would later come to prominence as phenomenologists (Sartre, de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty), structuralists (Lacan, Lévi-Strauss, Althusser) and cultural and literary theorists (Barthes, Bataille, Klossowski). His position regarding textual interpretation (or “reading’), the constitutive social conditions of human existence, the dialectical dynamic of history, the role of relations of oppression in the progress of history, and the relations between the rational and the Real, provided germinal ideas that blossomed in the work of others, often with a delayed impact and emerging sometimes only a decade or more later.
Kojeve’s reading of Hegel focuses almost exclusively on Hegeľs 1807 text The Phenomenology of Spirit, which Kojève reads as an account of the dialectical unfolding of a history that is the consequence of the slave’s supercession of his (physical, conceptual and social) slavery. For Hegel, the precondition for historical development or dialectical change is provided by the postulate of a self-consciousness, a self-identical being, a being confronting another self-consciousness fundamentally similar to itself, distinguished from everything other than itself by a radical negativity. Self-consciousness sees its object only in terms of negativity, as a thing to be used, transformed, obliterated: ‘what is other for it exists as an object without essential-reality, as an object marked with the character of a negative-entity’ (Kojève, 1969:10). It is only when the object of this self-consciousness turns out to be another self-consciousness that history (as dialectical overcoming) can be said to begin: it is only from the ‘moment’ there is contradiction and dialectical antagonism that history and thus development and change become possible.
Each self-consciousness may have ‘subjective certainty’ of itself, but this certainty has no objective confirmation without the complicity of the other. Each self-consciousness requires the recognition of the other in order to attain its self-certainty.1 For self-consciousness to be certain of itself, it must be recognised by another self-consciousness fundamentally the same as itself. This other also requires self-consciousness to recognise it as a subject in turn. Indeed, each must be prepared to risk its animal life, its mere physical existence, in order to attain the self-certainty or identity it craves. As the dialectic between these two similar beings unfolds, their relation becomes a life and death struggle, where each strives to assert its superiority over the other. If this struggle leads to the death of one or both protagonists, the certainty and confirmation from the other for which each struggles would be impossible. This struggle can have only one possible outcome if history as we know it is to develop. If one or both parties perish, self-consciousness does not gain the recognition of an other like itself, and thus reverts to its (mythical) proto-historical isolation and brute existence. It is only when one of the antagonists values autonomy and freedom, prestige and recognition more highly than animal life, when the subject is prepared to risk life itself; and when the other in turn values life above freedom — that is, when one vanquishes the other in the struggle for pure prestige — history ‘begins’.2
The first becomes the master, the second, the bondsman or slave. The first now exists for himself; while the second now exists for another, for the master. The master is autonomous; the slave dependent. We have in Hegel the primordial genesis of authority and relations of domination and subordination in the encounter of two subjects, the meeting of mirror-doubles. This model of abstract struggle has proved crucial in the development of contemporary accounts of the structure of oppression directly informing French feminisms.
The master thus gains the recognition he needs to have his self-certainty objectively confirmed. The slave by contrast ‘binds himself completely to the things on which he depends’ (Kojève, 1969:17), thus becoming like a thing himself. Ironically, while the master is recognised as subject-for-himself by the slave, the master is not recognised by a subject that he himself recognises or values as an equal self-consciousness. The slave’s recognition, in other words, has no value for the master, for it is a recognition bestowed by an object not by an Other.
Kojeve’s point seems to be that history belongs to and is made by the slave, not the master. The master’s position is ultimately a dead end, fixed, an ‘existential impasse’ (Kojève, 1969:19):
In other words history is the consequence of the slave’s attempt to transcend the ensnarements of that slavery by which he is bound. History is his supercession of himself qua slave. History is self-exceeding, self-transforming labour: the overcoming of the inertia of brute existence, the terror of subjection by the other or master, and the refusal of any idea of freedom and autonomy that is isolated from material self-sustaining and transforming labour, and self-productive social, political and intellectual life. For Kojève, history is the movement of transcendence, the acquisition of a lived truth of the subject in an intersubjective and socio-political world.
Kojève was largely responsible for kindling interest in radical readings of Hegel in France. Together with Jean Hyppolite, who translated The Phenomenology of Spirit into French in 1941, he provided a political vindication of Hegel, reading him retrospectively in the light of Marx’s account of class struggle. In Hegel, Kojève saw the earliest detailed anticipation of Marx’s materialist dialectic. Through his reading of Hegel he forged a direct link between individual, psychical or self-conscious subjectivity, and socio-political, cultural and historical development—the ‘private’ and the ‘public’, the ‘psychical’ and the ‘social’ — as we will see, a major contribution to the character of French philosophy today.
Where Kojeve’s reading stresses the master-slave dynamic as the motor or force of history, Hyppolite reads The Phenomenology largely in the light of Hegel’s understanding of the ‘unhappy consciousness’ [faute de mieux) — the striving of the creative mind for stability within a chaotic world, the ‘alienated soul’ (Hegel, 1967:251—67). Hyppolite’s reading functions in terms of the psychology of the subject in the face of the world. It is a reading that emphasises the partiality of the subject’s claims to truth and knowledge in comparison with the totality or wholeness of Absolute Knowledge. Hyppolite compared The Phenomenology to a ‘terrestial repetition of Dante’s Divine Comedy’ (Hyppolite, 1969:vi). It can be read as the analysis of the alienation and the overcoming of alienation in and by subjectivity. Where Kojève reads Hegel through the retrospective validation of Marx, Hyppolite reads Hegel through his deferred effect in Kierkegaard, phenomenology and psychoanalysis.
To summarise some of the implications of the ‘discovery’ of Hegel for French feminisms, the following points may be relevant:
  1. Kojève demonstrated through his reading of Hegel that the logic of history is inseparable from the question of oppression and struggle. Power, domination and freedom are the essential ingredients of history.
  2. He makes the question of subjectivity, self-consciousness and identity not just a relevant issue to the arena of politics, but places it at its very centre. The subject’s relations to other subjects, to culture and to knowledge is the field on which history is played out.
  3. Instead of a narrowly deterministic understanding of history as a reflection of the powerful — the masters — Kojève stresses the productivity of the position of the slave. Progress and development come from struggle and resistance, not domination, control or even enlightenment of masters. The history produced by struggle is the history of the slave’s struggle for genuine self-determination.
  4. While Kojève stresses the crucial role of subjectivity in history, he also emphasises the lack at the centre of subjectivity — a lack defined as desire, negation — in opposition to the fullness Descartes attributed to the pregiven cogito.
  5. Self-knowledge is not given to the subject in isolation from others or the world, as Descartes asserts. Rather, where it occurs, it is the result of a congruence between the self-conscious subject, a political community, social institutions and knowledges. Absolute knowledge as a self-reflective activity is possible only at the ‘end of history’.
  6. Perhaps most significantly for feminist theory, he establishes the intimate link between identity and alterity: the fate of the subject is necessarily bound up with the existence of the other. The other is the essential condition of self-consciousness.
Kojève and Hyppolite link Hegel and Hegelianism to a series of other philosophical texts and positions — Marx’s, Freud’s, Kierkegaard’s, Husserl’s — thereby ensuring that Hegel is no longer read as an anachronistic nineteenth-century romantic metaphysician, but as a dynamic theorist of subjectivity and struggle, whose dialectical methods are still highly relevant to contemporary politics.

Phenomenology, marxism and structuralism

Since Kojeve’s reading of Hegel, French intellectual and political life has been polarised around two competing positions. The first is humanist, phenomenological or existential; the second is anti-humanist, scientific and marxist. Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty are perhaps the best known of the first position; while Georges Politzer, Paul Nizan, Henri Lefebvre, Georges Friedmann and Edgar Morin (Hirsch, 1981:20—21), lesser-known figures outside of France, could be included in the second. There are of course anomalous figures who are not easily classified according to this schema — such as Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot, Pierre Klossowski and Georges Bataille — whose works are of special relevance to the post-1968 generation.
Sartre published Being and Nothingness in 1943. In it he humanises and individualises Husserlian phenomenology. Humanism is the belief that all values, meanings, history and culture are the products of human consciousness and individual activity. It conflates the subject and consciousness, granting primary value to consciousness in making choices, and judging, creating and transforming social relations. Sartre’s own version of phenomenology—existentialism — espouses the primacy of the subject’s experiences in ontological, political, social and interpersonal relations.
For Sartre, the human being has at least one immutable, fixed characteristic: its essence is determined by its existence. It is paradoxically forced to be free, to give meaning and value to its existence by its own choices. Sartre divides the subject into three modes-of-being: being-in-itself (the subject’s brute, given or fixed nature, including its physiology, its past and what is unchangeable); being-for-itself (consciousness, self-reflective awareness); and being-for-others (the subject considered as another by another subject, social and interpersonal identity). Being-for-itself or consciousness is privileged insofar as choice, freedom, is located here. Being-in-itself is given, and being-for-others is beyond one’s control. The subject is a consciousness constrained to be free. The conscious subject is surrounded by a gap or lack, a nothingness’, which separates it from itself (it can never simply be what it is or coincide with itself, it must become what it ...

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Citation styles for Sexual Subversions
APA 6 Citation
Grosz, E. (2020). Sexual Subversions (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Grosz, Elizabeth. (2020) 2020. Sexual Subversions. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Grosz, E. (2020) Sexual Subversions. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Grosz, Elizabeth. Sexual Subversions. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2020. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.