Reading as a woman
- Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy by Mary Daly
Women’s Press, 407 pp, £14.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 7043 2847 X
- Feminist Literary Studies: An Introduction by K.K. Ruthven
Cambridge, 162 pp, £16.50, December 1984, ISBN 0 521 26454 5
- Women: The Longest Revolution by Juliet Mitchell
Virago, 334 pp, £5.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 86068 399 0
- Hélène Cixous: Writing the Feminine by Verena Andermatt Conley
Nebraska, 181 pp, £20.35, March 1985, ISBN 0 8032 1424 3
- Women who do and women who don’t by Robyn Rowland
Routledge, 242 pp, £5.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 7102 0296 2
- The Sexual Politics of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Joel Schwartz
Chicago, 196 pp, £14.45, June 1984, ISBN 0 226 74223 7
Why these books should have come to a male reviewer is perhaps more a question for the editor than myself. All the same, it is an issue that can hardly be ducked in the context of present-day feminist debate. Is it possible for a well-disposed male heterosexual to ‘read as a woman’, overcoming all the gender-based habits and assumptions imposed by a rigidly patriarchal culture? Jonathan Culler argues as much in the opening chapters of his recent book On Deconstruction. For Culler, this serves as a paradigm case of the way that deconstructionist strategies of reading can work to undo such naturalised categories as ‘male’ versus ‘female’, conceived in biological or essentialist terms. It is not enough for feminist critics to identify subjectively with women writers, or with those elements of repressed female experience there to be uncovered in the texts of patriarchal tradition. Such thinking is the first stage only, since it cannot do more than put up local resistance and leave the opposition male/female firmly in place. What is needed, Culler argues, is a systematic process of displacement which interrogates the logic underlying such assumptions and shows it to rest on a certain blindness to its own textual workings. Thus Freud’s discourse on female sexuality reveals all the symptomatic twists and distortions of a theory bent upon establishing power over that which would otherwise elude its control. Hysteria and penis-envy are just two of those mythic explanations which Freud has to invent by way of warding off this threat to the phallocratic order of things.
So the best way to read such episodes is to treat them precisely as allegories of reading, cases where the text of male authority comes up against the limits of its own explanatory force. ‘Reading as a woman’ is not just a matter of imagining what it feels like to be George Eliot or to be Dorothea Brooke or to be a present-day female reader of Eliot’s fiction. Such efforts of imaginary identification are merely a reverse acting-out of the standard sexual stereotypes. Rather, it requires a deconstructive reading of the male-engendered myths and stratagems that work to impose such essentialist notions of typically ‘female’ experience. And it follows from Culler’s argument that a male critic with enlightened (deconstructionist) views is just as well placed as a female when it comes to the activity of ‘reading as a woman’. There are two main assumptions at work here. First, it is taken for granted that the nature and modalities of ‘female’ experience are largely a matter of cultural conditioning, gender-roles rather than given (bio-logical) attributes. This leads on to the second supposition: that theorists (male or female) can effect a critique of those naturalised gender-roles by consciously devising strategies of thought through which to loosen their hold. Theory becomes a kind of gender-neutral ground from which to deconstruct the more primitive mythologies of sexual difference.
But to some feminists it is just this move on the part of (supposedly) well-meaning males that signals their desire to take things over and restore the sexual status quo. Theory is seen as an exclusively male preserve, a product of the technocratic will-to-power that has always thrived by ignoring, suppressing or – as in this case – craftily co-opting the female opposition. To theorise is inherently to reduce differences, to seek out monopolistic schemes of explanation which set their own terms for ‘rational’ debate. Hence the current quarrel between radical feminists and, among others, those thinkers in the Marxist tradition who pin their faith to a generalised theory of class, ideology and social formation. Hence also their hostility toward any male critic, like Culler, who claims to arrive at a feminist position by deploying theory beyond and against its usual (phallocentric) order of assumptions. To this way of thinking it is a mere impertinence for males to set up as adoptive feminists on the strength of their enlightened attitude. Theory remains what it always was: a technique for devaluing whatever belongs to the female sphere of intuitive, authentic or natural being. There is no question here of sexual difference reducing very largely to gender-roles whose ‘natural’ opposition can be deconstructed by an independent effort of thought. Such thinking merely perpetuates the old male illusion that theory is enough to remove all obstacles to a free and equal discourse. On the contrary, these feminists argue: theory is on the side of aggressive masculinity, and only by acknowledging their real sexual difference – beyond all talk of gender stereotypes – can women resist its oppressive logic. Male converts are welcome, like men at Greenham Common, so long as they accept a visitor’s role. Those who come fore-armed with legitimating theories might as well be manning the missiles.
Mary Daly puts the case with maximum force in her attack on the protocols of male-centred logic and language. Pure Lust is a wild hybrid of a book, outrageously mixing history and myth, Joycean word-play and a kind of Heideggerian questing-back for the etymopoeic roots of a long-lost matriarchal culture. ‘Elemental women’ are the sole addressees of Daly’s message, and the male reader is nowhere entertained except as an alien, intrusive presence. ‘Philosophise with a hammer’ was Nietzsche’s response to the apostles of systematic theory and method. Daly takes a hammer to everything she sees as invested with male values, from the orderly constructions of prose discourse to the ‘sado-ascetic’ perversions of instinct bred in equal measure by science, religion and the wholesale policing of sexual identity. Like Foucault, she is concerned with the micro-politics of power and desire, the workings of repression at a level far removed from most Marxist ideas of the state and its ideological agencies. But here the resemblance has an end. Foucault conducts his genealogical investigations for the most part in a language of studied neutrality, just occasionally rising to a tone of apocalyptic fervour. In Daly’s writing such moments occur in almost every sentence, creating an effect of constant assault upon the limited resources of a male-engendered academic style.
There is not much point in selective quotation since this writing depends very much on a sense of cumulative impact and can easily look absurd if wrenched out of context. Nor would it serve any useful purpose to summarise the main lines of argument – a standard technique (as Daly regards it) for reducing the energies of female language to the cut-and-dried categories of male reason. Thus the book pre-empts any adverse comment by setting up the typecast male opponent as an implied reader whose impotent rage is exposed to female ridicule. For Daly, things have simply gone too far to permit any tactical alliance of interests between authentic (‘elemental’) women and well-meaning male fellow-travellers. What is at stake is the survival of life on earth, threatened by a technocratic reason whose effects include the destruction of nature, the pollution of mind and body, and the imminent prospect of nuclear war. In the face of all this – so Daly would argue – there is no making terms with ‘enlightened’ males who think to join forces with the feminist movement by casting off the shackles of conventional gender-roles.
So it is mere bad faith, on Daly’s view, for the male to take comfort in sophisticated theories which permit him the illusion of ‘reading as a woman’. Female experience is rooted in a whole different sphere of ‘ontological’ being, the discovery of which is only possible for women who have seen through the myths of male rationality. Men can make a show of doing the same, but their act is nothing more than a simulated gesture.
Women who have experienced the epiphany ... have almost immediately known what the women’s movement is ‘all about’. This knowledge is intuitive and organic ... It could be compared to the seedling of a tree that will grow forever if we choose this knowing/growing ... The biophilic will to know E-motionally is a will to impassioned expression of Original Integrity.
As a male reviewer, and a critical theorist besides, I am frankly at a loss for any adequate response to language like this. On the one hand, I deplore the worked-up rhetorical pathos and the use of an ersatz Heideggerian appeal to the jargon of authenticity. I want to deconstruct the mystique-laden essentialist thinking which assumes that there exists some deep ontological divide between the sexes, such that only women can know what it means to think, write or read ‘as a woman’. Above all, I am struck by the reversability of Daly’s tactics, by the fact that she adopts a one-sided rhetoric of ‘female’ instinct and intuitive nature precisely as defined by a long tradition of male hegemonic reason. Deconstructing the assumptions behind such language seems the best that one can do in the face of other, more insidious recuperative readings. On the other hand, ‘theory’ aside, it is evident that Daly’s kind of gut feminism has more to say to those, like the Greenham women, who are truly up against the brute realities of male aggression. Had they the time for books of feminist theory, the Greenham women would find their own position most aptly figured in Daly’s potent archaeology of female being.
Still, one is entitled to object to such beliefs in so far as they exclude one half of humanity from any understanding of the other. To raise sexual difference into a wholesale ontology, as Daly does, is to risk falling back into a manichaean attitude which sees no end to the warring of opposed principles. Ken Ruthven makes the point most succinctly in the opening polemical chapter of Feminist Literary Studies. There is no good reason, he argues, why male critics should not address themselves to issues of feminist politics and theory. The idea that they are unfitted for such involvement by the mere fact of being men is itself a form of sexist mystification which simply reproduces the same old oppressive habits of thought. ‘Feminist terrorism is a mirror image of machismo ... for which the only acceptable end is unconditional surrender of all power to women.’ But the point, Ruthven argues, is to deconstruct sex-role stereotypes by showing them at work, not only in literary texts, but in the teaching situation and the whole institutionalised ethos of literary studies.
The discipline of English is a gendered discourse in ways that can best be shown up by deconstructing the normative language and assumptions of ‘liberal’ education. It is here, Ruthven suggests, that the feminist critic (woman or man) is in a strong position to challenge the established structures of authority. He rejects the idea that males are unable to perform such work since their sexual identity is too closely tied to the exercise of ‘phallocratic’ mastery and power. Such thinking reduces the feminist case to a species of irrationalist argument centred on a vaguely female mystique of intuitive ‘natural’ being. Nor is Ruthven much impressed by those fashionable French theories which claim that there exists a certain kind of writing (écriture féminine) whose sources lie deep in the female psyche and work to disrupt all the male constraints of logic, syntax and sense. This idea – ‘that sex and style are linked symbiotically’ – strikes Ruthven as little more than a handy device for evading honest, rational debate. Worst of all, it ignores the whole question of gender, of the ways in which sex-roles are socially constructed, for the sake of reimposing the old essentialist mythology of male and female. Ruthven has some sharp critical points to make about the traps and delusions created by this habit of thinking. Such ineptitudes, he writes, ‘may well prompt misgivings about the people who write them’, but they don’t undermine the central hypothesis of feminist criticism: ‘that gender is a crucial determinant in the production, circulation and consumption of literary discourse.’
Clearly it is a nonsense, on Ruthven’s view, to identify ‘theory’ with the agencies of male domination. As he points out, some of the best recent feminist writing has been crucially influenced by male theorists like Foucault, Barthes, Derrida and Lacan. Then again, further back, there is the shining example of Mill’s great essay ‘The Subjection of Women’, one sentence from which – quoted by Juliet Mitchell – makes exactly the point that Ruthven is stressing. ‘What is now called the nature of women,’ Mill writes, ‘is an eminently artificial thing – the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others. So true is it that unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and that everything which is usual appears natural.’ Mitchell’s Women: The Longest Revolution belongs very firmly to the order of feminist theory rather than female mystique. In this sense it answers to Ruthven’s demand that feminism should argue its case in a spirit of open debate in which males can engage, if not on equal terms, then at least to some rational purpose. Her title signifies as much through its clear allusion to Raymond Williams’s work in the largely male-dominated Marxist tradition of socio-cultural criticism. The point – here as throughout her book – is not to reject that tradition outright but to extend it into areas of sexual politics invisible to mainstream Marxists.
Mitchell starts out with a brief case-history of her own evolving ideas. Most important was the sense that feminist issues had been pushed out of sight by her colleagues on the ‘old’ New Left, mainly on the standard Marxist grounds that the freedom of women could only come about through the prior transformation of class society. Thus her book carries on a running critique of those theories – Marxist and Freudian alike – which marginalise women’s concerns in their drive for universal schemes of explanation. Mitchell nevertheless agrees with Ruthven in rejecting the kind of inverted sexist prejudice which equates this drive with the rooted, unredeemable fact of male identity. It was Althusser’s reading of Marx, she recalls, which first gave a clear theoretical focus to her feelings of unease with the commonplace reductive account. The same general pattern emerges in the essays on Freud, where Mitchell traces the tensions which develop between a theory of sexuality that covertly asserts male dominance and another, countervailing line of argument that struggles to articulate the complex genealogy of female gender and desire. Her aim is not to vindicate Freud as a crypto-feminist whose writings have been vulgarly misunderstood. She sees clearly enough, and documents thoroughly, the motives of defensive male prejudice that blinded Freud to his own best insights on the subject of female sexuality. But by reading his texts deconstructively, by teasing out (in Barbara Johnson’s phrase) their ‘warring forces of signification’, Mitchell can demonstrate a conflict in Freud between the crudely reductive, biological account of sexual difference and a theory that opens into questions of gender politics.
This can all be taken as supporting Ruthven’s claim that males can negotiate the issues of feminist criticism by consciously adopting the gender-role tactics of ‘reading as a woman’. There is, after all, nothing to prevent a male reader from discovering those same signs of strain and self-division in the Freudian text. To this extent theory would seem to occupy a gender-neutral ground, being neither (as Daly would have it) an instrument of male repression nor, on the other hand, a weapon of value only to women readers. All the same, one may feel that Ruthven pushes the case too far when he insists on an almost complete dissociation between gender-role and sexual identity. ‘It is no more necessary to be a woman in order to analyse feminist criticism as criticism than it is to be a Marxist in order to comprehend the strategies of Marxist criticism.’ Though superficially plausible enough, this analogy is unlikely to convince any feminist who happens to be a woman or any student of Marxist theory who happens to be a Marxist. The latter would argue that theory and practice cannot be so neatly disjoined, and that anyone who takes this serenely agnostic line has failed to grasp the import of Marx’s injunction that the business of philosophy is to change the world, not merely to interpret it. To which one can imagine Ruthven responding that this is more a supplementary act of faith than a matter of deduction from first principles. And it can hardly be denied that non-Marxists – many of them downright unsympathetic – have produced some intelligent critical readings of texts in the Marxist tradition. But this is surely not what Ruthven intends by his analogy with the male critic who deliberately puts himself in the position of ‘reading as a woman’. Such a gesture requires at least the will to seek out alternatives to the present regime of male-dominated discourse.
Ruthven is clear enough about this when he praises select male novelists (among them Richardson, Hardy and James in The Bostonians) for their power of conveying the pressures and intensities of female experience. Long before the arrival of feminist theory it was possible, he writes, ‘for certain male authors to reconstruct themselves temporarily as women for the purposes of creating female characters so untrammelled by contemporary conventional representations of womanhood that women readers even nowadays are amazed that men should have had such insights into what it means to live as a woman in a male-dominated society.’ This passage goes well beyond the gender-role theory which sometimes has Ruthven seeming to suggest that the switching from one to another role is a matter of critical tactics pure and simple. It evokes an ethos of authenticity, a language of ‘insight’ and identification, such that these novelists knew what it meant not merely to write but to ‘live’ as a woman. Ruthven is right to reject any theory that would rule such cases strictly impossible by conceiving of male and female experience as two wholly separate spheres of being. But he sometimes weakens his argument by pushing too far in the opposite direction: implying that sexual difference is beside the point, since male feminists can always switch roles by making the appropriate deconstructive moves.
Mitchell writes as a feminist who wishes neither to efface her sexual identity nor to raise it into a kind of defensive mystique against the claims of rational argument. Her essays on women novelists come closest to explaining how the two positions might be held together. They follow out the insights achieved in her reading of Freud on the topic of female hysteria, a treatment she finds both acutely suggestive and strategically blind to its own conditions of cultural production. The discourse of male authority is clearly inscribed in the need to make an issue – a uniquely problematic ‘case’ – of female hysteria. Yet the problem is real enough as suffered by those women whose experience mirrored that same dialectic of sexual mastery and oppression. Among these women it is the female writers whose conflict of gender-roles comes across most strongly. The woman novelist, writes Mitchell, ‘must be an hysteric. Hysteria is the woman’s simultaneous acceptance and refusal of the organisation of sexuality under patriarchal capitalism ... And I think that is exactly what the novel is; I do not believe there is such a thing as female writing, a “woman’s voice”. There is the hysteric’s voice which is the woman’s masculine language (one has to speak “masculinely” in a phallocentric world) talking about female experience.’ Thus Mitchell is at one with Ruthven in arguing that there is ‘no such thing’ as female writing, a language rooted in the deep instinctual drives and somatic rhythms of womanly being. She accepts this much of Lacanian theory: that access to language and social existence is by way of the Symbolic (or patriarchal) order which assigns gender-roles according to its own strict logic of representation. Advocates of a ‘female writing’ believe that it is possible to escape this order, to regress into the Lacanian ‘Imaginary’, a region of undifferentiated polymorphous language and desire. To Mitchell this appears an impossible condition. Nonsense or silence – the terminal stages of clinical psychosis – are the only refuge of a subject who has truly denied herself access to the Symbolic order. But there remains the distinctive kind of ‘feminine’ writing that Mitchell locates at the point of encounter between a male-centred public discourse and a language of thwarted female desire. Ruthven is obliged to ignore this possibility in his will to prove that there is no ‘essential’ difference between male and female writing.
Conley’s book on Hélène Cixous is part-exposition, part-celebration of that écriture féminine that Mitchell thinks a chimerical project. It serves the useful purpose – for English readers – of setting out the detailed trajectory of Cixous’s writing career, describing her texts (both ‘fiction’ and ‘theory’) without any attempt at crude paraphrase, and placing her ideas in a wider (if mainly Parisian) context. If her position is hard to pin down – shifting incessantly from page to page of Conley’s agile commentary – then such is the nature of ‘feminine writing’ as Cixous conceives it. She claims to have worked her way through and beyond that whole philosophical enterprise whose various stages of progressive dissolution are charted in the rollcall from Hegel and Nietzsche to Bataille, Derrida and Lacan. We are to think of Cixous’s early work as the necessary ground-clearing labour of theory, a prelude to the energies later unleashed by a new, wholly different practice of writing. Much of Conley’s book is therefore taken up with locating points of theoretical departure which now – in the light of Cixous’s latest texts – belong to some remote prehistory of thought. Thus Derrida ‘undoes paternal authority ... from a “masculine” border, yet does not broach the possibility of a maternal, a matrical. This is where her work begins.’
Conley is very much a believing disciple who takes it as read (or as written) that Cixous has indeed come out on the far side of all that philosophic labour. She makes a fair job of summarising Derrida (along with Bataille, Lacan and others) where background explanations are called for. But she is a bit too willing to indulge Cixous in some of her more facile claims to have broken clean out of the prison-house of concepts still occupied by all those male theorists. Most often she relies on a simple switch of register, from analytic prose to a species of lyrical abandon where the argument is carried on a swirling current of vague metaphorical suggestion. Of course this distinction is eminently open to the kind of feminist-deconstructive reading that Conley proposes. ‘All language is metaphoric, and abstract concepts are always used by those in power to ensure their supremacy.’ For Conley, no less than Cixous, any writing that confined itself to ‘abstract’ argument would remain bound up with that restricted male economy of power-relations, cut off from the energising sources of female desire. Her commentary is intended as an instance of ‘writing the feminine’, rather than a mere supplementary gloss on the theories taken up and dispensed with along the way. Hence the importance for Cixous of those writers (notably Bataille) who attempt to move beyond the closed economy of regulated system and exchange to a new dispensation based – after Mauss – on the idea of the ‘gift’ as founding gesture of social existence. ‘Whereas in Derrida excess as that which cannot be recuperated in a “system”, into conceptual oppositions, is not necessarily on the side of abundance, Cixous, closer to Bataille, writes of excess as effusion, eros, poetry, drunkenness and laughter.’ Yet a reading of Derrida’s essay on Hegel, ‘From Restricted to General Economy’, would show this up as a distinctly prejudicial and reductive account of the matter. ‘Affirmative deconstruction’, as it has come to be called, is everywhere implicit in Derrida’s texts and is by no means incompatible – as Conley seems to suppose – with the rigours of echt-deconstructionist thought.
In the end, there is surprisingly little to choose between Cixous’s sophisticated notions of ‘writing the feminine’ and Daly’s aggressively gynocentric stance. Cixous arrives at her elusive ‘position’ through a deft interweaving of theories drawn from just about every available discourse on the current post-structuralist scene. Daly has no time for theory, regarding it as an indulgence, and a male indulgence at that. But they both make the same mystificatory appeal to a feminine (for Daly, a female) element of language and desire where masculine reason must fear to tread. Cixous is careful to distance her thinking from any suggestion of a crude biological determinism. ‘“Masculine” and “feminine”,’ Conley writes, ‘function as differential predicates that can be used for men and women. There is no timeless essence of femininity and masculinity, only subjects caught in a network of historical power relations.’ But there seems no way out of this gender-fix except by renouncing the rational constraints – and, with them, the common intelligibility – of discourse between the sexes. Such is the gist of Mitchell’s and Ruthven’s objection to the whole idea of écriture féminine. It can only make sense in terms of some radically different psychic economy of language and being. And in this case there would seem little force in the argument that ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are gender-roles imposed by a merely local and transitory state of sexual power-relations.
Such issues are perhaps unresolvable at the giddy heights of theory where much of this debate is currently taking place. One way of bringing them down to earth is by reading the pieces collected by Robyn Rowland in Women who do and women who don’t (join the women’s movement). Rowland’s idea was to get the widest possible cross-section of views on both sides of the issue, and to build up a picture of prevailing attitudes among feminists and anti-feminists alike. Her opening and closing essays make an effort to treat both causes even-handedly, though Rowland can scarcely conceal her disquiet at the extent of the current anti-feminist backlash. For the rest she leaves the women to tell their own story with minimal prompting from a list of prepared questions. Certainly the book brings together an impressive variety of background experience. ‘There are black, migrant, lesbian, heterosexual and religious women involved. Some have children, others do not; some are married, others are single. Their ages range from 17 to 75 years old.’ Though presented in the guise of empirical research, as so many detailed case-histories, the results have an obvious bearing on the problems of current feminist theory.
For one thing, they offer strong support to the position argued by Mitchell: that gender is very largely a cultural construct, though marked on the female side by peculiar sources of tension and resistance. Mitchell’s further point – that these often take the form of ‘hysterical’ symptoms in language – is borne out by more than one of the militant anti-feminists. Their writing is characterised by a shrill insistence on the rightful (God-given) role of women as wives, mothers and natural providers of male domestic security. Feminists are seen as part of a sinister conspiracy – anti-Christian and most likely Communist-inspired – to break up the family and destroy all the natural bonds of human affection. ‘It is Satan who stands behind these movements in our nation, and he seeks to destroy the “Home”, God’s First Institution.’ The writer, Toni Holt, might be taken as a classic case of what Mitchell sees as the hysterical discourse induced by female identification with the norms of patriarchal culture. A tireless opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, she believes that Satan would have had his way if Carter had remained in office for another term. ‘However, in 1980, Ronald Reagan became our president – PRAISE THE LORD! Along with the election of a conservative, pro-life (life defined as beginning at conception), pro-family (family defined as those related by blood, marriage or adoption), Christian (believer in the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ) president, we also elected a conservative, pro-life/pro-family Senate.’ The passage is of interest not just for its alignment of God, family and state in a sequence headed by Ronald Reagan as elected representative of God’s will on earth: it also brings out the truth of Mitchell’s remark about ‘the woman’s masculine language (one has to speak “masculinely” in a phallocentric world) talking about feminine experience’. The style is replete with hysterical symptoms, reinforced by the strain of fundamentalist religious fervour. It is the writing of a woman torn between defiant assertion of her own ‘natural’ female identity and the will to conform with a rigidly paternalist order. ‘Believing that God’s word is true when it says, “I can do all things through Christ,” I am firmly convinced that I, or any other woman, could run for president for we women are intelligent, very exciting and very, very necessary.’ Feminist theory certainly has its work cut out ex-plaining such a grotesque mixture of female self-assertion and internalised masculine values.
The women who did (join the women’s movement) also have some complicated stories to tell, though they are usually much clearer about their own reasons and motives. What comes across most often is the fact that issues of sexual difference are heavily over-determined by political, racial and other factors, preventing any clear-cut division of roles between type-cast ‘male’ and ‘female’. Some (like Mitchell) are disillusioned with the attitude of residual sexist bias encountered in their left-wing ‘enlightened’ male colleagues. Others are victims of racial as well as sexual oppression, forced to work out a strategy for coping with their multiple (and often conflicting) alignments of interest. One of them describes how, on joining the movement, ‘I felt I’d finally come home, despite being a Maori, despite being a butch role-playing lesbian, despite being a dozen conflicting, different, contradictory selves.’ It soon becomes clear, in reading these essays, that gender-roles are complex and shifting formations beyond all reach of reductive determinist thinking. The feminist contributors have mostly grasped this fact and are able to move convincingly between personal case-history and larger reflections on the pressures of circumstance that have made them what they are. The anti-feminists reject this message and tend to fall back on a naturalised mythology of women’s proper place in the male-sanctioned order of things. This is not to deny that they have some powerful arguments, especially when it comes to the urgent practical issues of abortion, pornography and child-care provision. But these arguments are often mixed up with a wholesale paranoid resentment of the feminists, an attitude that replicates the worst, most unreasoning of hostile male responses.
Joel Schwartz finds some pertinent lessons for present-day feminism in the writings of Rousseau. Exactly what those lessons are can be hard to make out, even after a careful reading of his book. Schwartz is not concerned with the finer points of interpretative theory, despite a scattering of footnote references to Derrida on Rousseau. He tends to assume that an author’s themes and ideas can be lifted off the page and applied to current issues of sexual politics, allowing only that conditions have changed in certain material respects, such as the availability of cheap and safe contraceptive methods. Otherwise he makes no apology for treating Rousseau’s exemplary texts as so many parables or leads for discussion.
Not that the message is simple or its modern implications a source of comfort to one side only in the feminist debate. In fact, Schwartz argues, there are two distinct teachings on the question of sexual difference, each of them consistently developed and refined across the whole range of Rousseau’s diverse literary production. One might be called the benevolent or hopeful teaching. It holds that sexual differences are real enough – temperamentally as well as biologically-rooted – but denies that women are thereby deprived of any power over men. Rather, their influence makes itself felt through the fact of male dependence on those female qualities that go to make up an ordered, harmonious society. On this hopeful view there is reason to believe that sexual difference can serve as a model for the politics of enlightened mutual understanding. From sexuality, in short, ‘we can learn to cooperate with one another without exploiting one another.’ The relationship of the sexes is therefore a topic of the utmost importance to Rousseau, since it promises to bridge the problematic gap between nature and culture, biological fact, on the one hand, and social institutions, on the other.
Rousseau’s second teaching is much less sanguine. It denies the beneficent mutual dependence of men and women, asserts that men are naturally the dominant sex, and deplores the effects of female influence which have produced a tendency to socialise (and thus to undermine) that noble condition. On this view, the relationships implicit in sexual difference are not so much a source of social well-being as a sign of decadence and weakness. ‘In Rousseau’s view nature essentially condemns women to be sexual and political, whereas nature treats men less imperiously, and might perhaps allow at least a few men to transcend the domination characteristic of politics and sexuality.’ Schwartz takes these two exemplary teachings as a key to the various thematic complications of Rousseau’s writing. His book ranges widely over the fiction, the discourses on politics and language, the Confessions, and other more ‘marginal’ texts. He comes up with some novel and provocative readings, not least in those chapters that suspend the distinction between ‘fiction’ and ‘autobiography’: there is some shrewd criticism here, and less of that disturbing tendency to pick out isolated passages in support of some generalised ‘position’ or other. Schwartz is fully aware of the ways in which Rousseau’s rhetorical strategies often work to complicate the logic of his argument beyond its express intent. One could say without malice that, as a professor of political science, Schwartz makes a very good literary critic.
That is, until he comes to the business of ‘applying’ Rousseau’s ideas on sexual difference to the current situation of feminist politics. His approach is at its most reductive here, playing off the two exemplary ‘positions’ against a range of modern arguments for and against female emancipation. Schwartz is even-handed enough in all this. He rehearses the case (after Rousseau’s first teaching) for the maintenance of differential sex-roles as a means of preserving social interdependence. He suggests – though not without certain misgivings – that ‘modern scientific investigations’ support the idea of ‘immutable’ distinctions of talent and aptitude between the sexes. On the other hand, he ventures the qualifying judgment that Rousseau’s sexual politics would nowadays seem more plausible ‘were he less ambivalent about the equality of the sexual partners, and hence about the legitimacy of their interchange of roles’. Schwartz is far from treating Rousseau as a straightforward source of oracular wisdom. But there is still a very marked shift of gear between the subtlety he brings to the reading of Rousseau’s texts and the crude playing-off of stereotyped ‘positions’ with regard to present-day sexual politics.
Thus he quotes Carolyn Heilbrun (in Beyond Androgyny) as arguing that ‘unless we can effectively check the power of manly men and the women who willingly support them, we will experience new Vietnams, My Lais, Kent States.’ To which Schwartz replies that a moment’s reflection is enough to discountenance this argument, since without the power of manly men ‘we will no longer experience new Battles of Britain and Entebbes’. But to take this line is surely to beg the more urgent question of why – through what effects of institutionalised male aggression – society finds need for such heroic counter-measures. In the end, Schwartz evades the two main challenges of current feminist thinking. He fails to think through the deconstructive critique of sex-role stereotypes that theorists (Mitchell and Ruthven among them) pursue to such unsettling effect. At the same time, he tends to discount that other, more assertive form of ‘elemental’ feminism whose representatives are Mary Daly and – at its most embattled – the women of Greenham Common. In view of their extraordinary courage and resilience it does seem off the point for Schwartz to maintain that ‘heroism’ perhaps has something to do with ‘“male bonding”, with the separation of men from women, with the differentiation of men from women’. And it is clear that no theorising can amount to much if it doesn’t find room for their exemplary stand.