The human Subject was once assumed to be an autonomous, transcendental unity. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, postmodernists initiated a deconstruction of the metanarrative attached to the concept of the Subject1. They argued that that subjectivity is actually socio-historically bounded and, therefore, better understood as a fragmentary thing. Meanwhile, ‘Second Wave’ feminists had a different theoretical agenda: to “recuperate women’s archaic and mythic memory”. That is, despite the ‘death of the Subject’ initiated by the aforementioned deconstruction, they were focussed on (re)constructing feminine subjectivity from memories of what it was thought to have been. Women, it was argued, could not directly relate to the demise of the Subject because: (a) they had “never identified with that stable presence” and, (b) they may “already have sensed the extent to which subjectivity is constructed”, and thus fragmentary. I argue, therefore, that the death of ‘the feminine’2 Subject patently contradicts women’s experience of alterity, erroneously presupposing that they have, at some point, gloried in the same sense of agency as male Subjects.
Firstly, women have traditionally been excluded from the “narrow and particular caste” to which ‘Subjects’ belong. This is because patriarchal power relies on a binary logic which posits negative exceptions to its rule in order to affirm its own existence and superiority. As Simone de Beauvoir succinctly put it, “He is the subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other” . “Other” signifies divergence from the norm, which means that its referent is utterly adaptable, depending on how you delimit the parameters of the norm (male subjectivity in this case). Femininity, therefore constitutes “a variable defined as whatever it needs to be in order to make man’s subjectivity meaningful and whole”. By definition, then, the feminine is categorically excluded from the realm of subjectivity because the ontology of the latter is dependent on the ‘otherness’, or social marginalisation, of women. It follows that the death of the Subject should not be attributed to the feminine, because women have never identified (or have never been able to identify as a result of this exclusion), with this position in society.
Secondly, if male subjectivity has depended on female otherness, then the existence of ‘woman’ as a category itself is paradoxical, according to patriarchal logic. This is because woman only exists as an exception to man, but there is no exception that serves to define woman. Therefore, to paraphrase Zalloua, woman cannot be a totality because, unlike man, she has no “constitutive exception”. To give an example, Irigaray has argued that dominant discourses are implicitly masculine, and in such a way the feminine is the exception. Irigaray calls this phenomenon indifférence sexuelle (sexual indifference). This indifference – or disavowal – of feminine specificity depends on women occupying an “external position […] with respect to the laws of discursivity”, and of language itself.
A flagrant example of this is “the mixed plural [that] is expressed by the masculine plural” in languages with grammatical genders such as French. Comparable patterns pervade the English language which also works to establish masculinity as the norm. Indeed, Douglas R. Hofstadter draws attention to this linguistic phenomenon in his satirical article, “A Person Paper on Purity in Language” (1985). He bases generic terms on race rather than gender, so “chairman” becomes “chairwhite” and “All men are created equal” translates as “All whites are created equal”. By aligning implicit sexism with unthinkable racist sentiment, Hofstadter’s extended metaphor exposes the flagrancy of the masculine monopolisation of language.
Moreover, given the foundational role that language plays in selfhood, women internalise a sense of alterity as a result of their estrangement from it. Studies of female French speakers reveal that they are far more likely to place the masculine pronoun ‘il’ in the subject position of a sentence instead of the feminine ‘elle’. Women’s attenuated relationship with language and their resultant reluctance to compete for Subject status inhibits the emergence of feminine subjectivity in dominant discourses. Literature is a prime example: as Patricia Waugh remarked of the literary Subject, “male writers lament its demise”, whereas “women writers have not yet experienced that subjectivity”.
The feminine, therefore evaded postmodern deconstruction and we are only just beginning to see the emergence of fully-formed female subjects in mainstream cultural representation today. Take cinema as an example. There has been an increase in female directors telling stories of female self-discovery (Jane Campion, Sally Potter, Kimberly Peirce, and Jennifer Kent are among them). Even Disney has jumped on the bandwagon, with strong female protagonists in recent releases such as The Princess and the Frog (2009), Brave (2012), and Frozen (2013).
Inherent in the silencing of women through this linguistic estrangement is their alienation from “discourses constructing their bodies”. Indeed, Iris Marion Young argues that bodily alienation plays a fundamental role in feminine development in patriarchal society. Typically, the feminine body is configured as ineffectual in order to signify masculine physical agency (again demonstrating the role the feminine plays by its exclusion in defining the masculine). Thus as soon as the little girl comes to understand herself as female, she begins to acquire feminine body habits; most alienating of which are those that “actively […] hamper her movements”.
On the one hand, she is disciplined by environmental stimuli in the private sphere such as sedentary play and being treated as more fragile than her male peers. On the other hand, cultural representations in the public sphere, which present women as the eternal objects of a male-centred gaze, enjoin her to live as a mere material “thing”, rather than a conscious subject As a result, she comes to live in her body with ‘inhibited intentionality’. That is, she generally commits less to physical tasks, imagining the space around her as restricted. Furthermore, when engaged in an activity, she tends to contain motion within one part of her body instead of exploiting her entire physical frame as a man would.
For Young, this means that embodiment is experienced as a ‘discontinuous unity’; that is, experienced as a unity but only in fragments. In order to function physically, she must use her body as an instrument, but this is stultified by the patriarchal view that her body is primarily an ornament, or a lesser and passive version of the male body. Interestingly, because the woman experiences her body fragmentarily, it could be argued that the postmodern deconstruction of the Subject, actually legitimises a female point of view because the two point to the same conclusion: there is no such thing as transcendental unity when it comes to subjectivity. This pluralistic take on individual and, by extension, collective identity can actually be liberating. Indeed, this idea that identities do not belong in discrete categories but actually exist on a spectrum underpins both postmodernist thought and third wave feminism today.
There is good reason to embrace the pluralistic approach to identity; in the past, fixed definitions of femininity have been used to pigeonhole the female sex. Take, for example, the ‘feminine’ attributes I explore in this essay which dominant discourses have claimed to be innate qualities: other, lacking, aphasic, passive, object, weak, etc. For this reason, many thinkers deliberately avoid prescribing femininity with any fixed definition at all3. Instead, it has been reiterated that women need to find their own voices, while men need to accept themselves as fragmented4 , and presumably embrace their own feminine qualities. So it seems we should refrain from equating the feminine with any fixed meaning. Instead, it is more empowering to conceive of femininities in the plural, “celebrat[ing] the multiplicity of female perspectives and preoccupations”, hence the sex which is not one, but many, to paraphase Irigaray’s most famous title.
So, where do women fit in? Well, in conclusion, I have shown that, because women never previously identified as Subjects in the same way that men did, the postmodernist theory of the death of the Subject does not directly correspond to female experience. The basic premises of postmodern subjectivity — that human beings are products of their environment without mastery over their identity — did not come as such a surprise to women who had already experienced life as the Other. If anything, it could be argued that the death of the (implicitly male) Subject presented a window of opportunity for women to begin to form their own subjectivities, which depend upon an open-ended concept of what is feminine, which, in turn, can be tapped into by any person, regardless of biological sex.
Lucy Sabin studied French, Spanish, and Philosophy at Durham University. She enjoys writing, watching films, travelling, practicing yoga, and being creative. She hasn’t decided what she wants to be when she grows up yet. Follow her on Twitter @LucySabin and on LinkedIn at https://uk.linkedin.com/in/
What about you dear reader, do you think postmodernism has liberated women?