Skip to main content Accessibility help

If “Woman” is Just an Empty Category, Then Why Am I Afraid to Walk Alone at Night? Identity Politics Meets the Postmodern Subject

  • Laura Lee Downs (a1)


  • An abstract is not available for this content so a preview has been provided below. Please use the Get access link above for information on how to access this content.



Hide All

I would like to thank Kathleen Canning, Geoff Eley, Debbie Field, Pieter Judson, Tom Harrison, and the women and men from my graduate women's history seminar at the University of Michigan for many long and stimulating hours of discussion and debate over the issues aired in this review. I owe particular debts of gratitude to Mary Dearborn, Alice Echols, Sabine MacCormack, and Bill Sewell, who bravely endured several drafts of this piece and offered sage counsels on how to re-shape each successive incarnation.

1 Scott, Joan, Gender and the Politics of History (New York, 1988).

2 Scott, Joan, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry, 17:3 (Summer, 1991), 773–97.

3 Steedman, Carolyn, Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives (New Brunswick, NJ, 1986).

4 Hirsch, M. and Keller, E., Conflicts in Feminism (New York, 1990), 19.

5 Scott, J., Gender and the Politics of History (New York, 1988), and Riley, D., Am I That Name? Feminism and the Category of “Women” (Minnesota, 1988). Both Scott and Riley explore the internal instabilities in the category “woman,” but Riley does it in time, Scott in situ. Riley's historical-geneological examination of the category, of the sedimented forms of previous characterizations on which new outcroppings flourish, enables us to see gender shape shift in time; a temporally specific category produced by specific historical relations and “possessing their full validity only for and within those relations” (Riley, Ibid., 166, paraphrasing Marx's Grundrisse).

6 One significant and troubling corollary to this epistemology of identity is the assumption that merely being born into a set of constructed social, racial, and gender categories endows one with reliable and meaningful knowledge of what it means to be the creature whose identity is bounded by those categories; that to be a lower-middle-class Brooklynite automatically carries a kind of knowledge of being which not all lower-middle-class Brooklynites possess in equivalent or identical ways.

7 Scott, E.. “History in Crisis? The Other's Side of the Story,” American Historical Review, 94:3 (1989), 692.

8 By the same token, Derrida's subject is a fiction, an effect of the play of the text (see Derrida, J., Of Grammatology, Spivak, G., trans. [Baltimore, 1976]). Foucault's subject, by contrast, retains her form and coherence inherited from modem philosophies of consciousness. But Foucault breaks the links which connect consciousness with self-reflection and freedom and shows us instead how subjectification and subjection have historically travelled by the same path. The self-reflecting and (crucially) self-disciplining subject does not rise from within, the genuine expression of an inner, spontaneous reality. Rather, she is a modern creation, forged from without by the evermore elaborate technologies of power which converge upon her, creating desires and lodging them in her most secret nature, from whence they speak as if they formed her “true” nature and identity. See Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, vol I, (New York, 60, 1978), and Gordon, C., ed., Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings (New York, 1972).

9 Michel Foucault, cited in Taylor, Mark, “Descartes, Nietzsche and the Search for the Unsayable,” New York Times Book Review, 02 1, 1987, p. 2.

10 See, for example, Joan Scott, Gender and the Politics of History.

11 Ryan, Michael, Marxism and Deconstruction (Baltimore, 1982), p. 63.

12 And, I would argue, historians in general, as we all contemplate taking the “linguistic turn.”

13 This is a project on which a number of feminist scholars have already embarked. See Fraser, N., “What's Critical about Critical Theory? The Case of Habermas and Gender,” in Benhabib, S. and Cornell, D., eds., Feminism as Critique: On the Politics of Gender (Minneapolis, 1987); D. Riley, Am I That Name; Flax, J., Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West (Berkeley, 1990)Nicholson, L., ed., Feminism/ Postmodernism (New York, 1990); Harding, S., “The Instability of the Analytic Categories of Feminist Theory,” Signs, (Summer 1986); Alcoff, L., “Cultural Feminism vs. Post-Structuralism,” Signs (Spring 1988).

14 As Jane Caplan has observed, (“Gender is Everywhere,” The Nation (01 9–16, 1989, 63), this point is underscored in the very structure of narrative movement in Gender and the Politics of History from the academy to politics and from gender to politics.

15 Scott, , Gender, 5.

16 Scott, Joan, Gender and the Politics of History, 2. Scott's invocation of deconstruction as historical method takes the form of a plea to “refuse the fixed and permanent quality of the binary opposition, to genuinely historicize and deconstruct the terms of sexual difference,” and to subject our own analytic categories to a rigorous, deconstructive scrutiny (pp. 40–1). She then offers a two-part definition of gender as an element constitutive of social relationships based on perceived sexual differences and a primary way of signifying social power. In order to see how Scott arrived at her particular theoretical formulation, one should read her Gender and the Politics of History in conjunction with Culler, J., On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca, 1982); Derrida, J., Of Grammatology; and Spurs (Chicago, 1979).

17 See Scott, Gender, ch. 4.

18 Scott, Gender, chs. 5–7.

19 See Kuisel, R., Capitalism and the State in Modern France (New York, 1981), if you would like to read more about Leroy-Beaulieu's own brand of neo-classical theory and its broad impact in fin-de-siécle France.

20 Daubié's was a lone female voice in a noisy chorus of male opinion on political economy. Jules Simon, a professor who ultimately made the move from the academy to politics during the early years of the Third Republic, held several ministerial portfolios before moving on to the Senate, in 1879.

21 See Scott, , Gender, 59. I think this problem arises, in part, from Scott's definition of discourse. Unlike Foucault, who defines discourse not as text or ideology but as a system of power, Scott treats discourse as text-writ-large, its anonymous social equivalent. This move textualizes social relations in much the way that Clifford Geertz does when he “reads" culture (see, for instance, Geertz's famous essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” in Geertz, C., The Interpretation of Cultures [New York, 1973]).

22 See Roper, L., “Will and Honor: Sex, Words and Power in Augsburg Criminal Trials,” Radical History Review, 43 (Winter 1989), 4571, and Poovey, Mary, Uneven Developments (Chicago, 1988), for two admirable examples of deconstruction-in-history. Both scholars make the point that deconstruction does not mean folding context into text.

23 This pre-occupation drives Derrida to adopt what one scholar has called “the posture of incessantly harrying an unbeatable enemy” (Dews, Peter, The Logics of Disintegration: Post-Structuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory, (New York, 1987), 44.

24 Not surprisingly, the weapons forged in the contest against the totalizing aims of truth―aporia, discontinuity, and indeterminacy―offer scant ground for any constructive political and intellectual projects; one cannot dance forever on the edge of the volcano, alternating between a series of dazzling deconstructive acts and the hollow laughter of the muzzled other. See Kristeva, J., Les pouvoirs de l’horreur (Paris, 1980) and Polylogue (Paris, 1977).

25 Scott's conflation of a textually constructed, philosophical conception of truth with the humbler and evanescent realities of history may well stem not only from deconstruction's metaphysical orientation but also from that which is most exciting about Scott's recent work, namely, the interdisciplinary way in which she builds theory. For example, in “Gender: A Useful Category,” a shift occurs from Derrida's notion that there is no hors-texte (“outside-the-text”) to “all the world can be read as a text,” which, so far as I am able to ascertain, is derived from Clifford Geertz's concept of “reading” culture (see Geertz, C., Deep Play, although it is Geertz's “Blurred Genres,” American Scholar, 49 (1980), 165–79 which Scott cites in “Gender: A Useful Category.”) By combining deconstruction with Geertz's idea of culture as text, Scott implicitly argues for deconstruction as the sole analytic tool, an unnecessarily extreme position in rendering deconstruction and gender useful tools of historical analysis.

26 The collapsing of language and life into a single, discursively constituted structure goes beyond the Kantian view that humans of necessity perceive the world according to the contours of their sense organs; that what is and what we perceive might as well be one and the same. Rather, the argument seems to be that our epistemic categories themselves condition perception and thus form the sole reliable object of study in a world where truth and subject stand revealed as effects of language (Derrida) or power (Foucault).

27 In one telling example, Steedman recounts Henry Mayhew's bafflement at the inner coherence and sense of self which an eight-year old watercress seller conveyed as she narrated her life story to him. Steedman, C., Landscape for a Good Woman, 137–9.

28 In this respect, at least. Jessica Benjamin addresses problems of knowledge with which Jurgen Habermas is also concerned, although he addresses them in rather different contexts. See his “Technology and Science as Ideology,” in Towards a Rational Society (London. 1971) and his Theory of Communicative Action (London, 1981).

29 Derrida's Manichean conception of how texts undo themselves may derive from having read Hegel in an intellectual atmosphere dominated by the ghost of Alexandre Kojève. In Kojève's reading, all dialectical encounters between spirit and matter are a series of master-slave polarities writ large. The losing party is simply destroyed and never rises from the field, transformed (through struggle and death) to a higher level of being and consciousness. See Judt, T., Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944–56 (Berkeley, 1992). My thanks to him for suggesting the important role that Kojève's teaching may have played in shaping Derrida's later work.

30 Scott, Gender, ch. 8.

31 Riley, , Am I That Name, 17.

32 See Freud, S., Civilization and its Discontents (London, 1930). Benjamin is a far more sophisticated social theorist than Freud and maintains the distinctiveness of social and psychic structures even as she demonstrates how they have dovetailed around the notion of Oedipus as the tale of civilization. Hence, society and culture are not organized by the inner structures of mind projected outward upon the city. Her narrative moves like a game of three-dimensional chess, shifting from the intrapsychic plane to the terrain of intersubjectivity and from there to the larger structures of society and politics.

33 Even so, when daughters embark upon their journey of oedipal separation from the mother, it is only to emerge into the “freedom” of thinghood as daughters who are to be given away or sold outright to another man.

34 Note the lack of primal father in Freud's oedipal schema. He lurks in terrifying violence behind the rational authority figure of the patriarch with whom the son identifies.

35 Benjamin, J., The Bonds of Love (New York, 1988), 170. Gender asymmetry is already rearing its misshapen head here, for if “effeminacy” poses a deadly threat to male identity (witness the horrific violence committed against gay men), the possession of “masculine” traits does not threaten female identity and may even represent a (soon to be thwarted) route to freedom for the “tomboy.”

36 Intrapsychic and intersubjective theory are not mutually exclusive. The two deal with different terrains, describe distinct psychic realities. Until recently, however, intrasubjective theory has lived on the borderlands of psychoanalytic respectability.

37 That this caretaker has generally been a woman is crucial to the architectonics of Benjamin's theory.

38 See Benjamin, The Bonds of Love.

39 See Kristeva, J., “Hérétique de l’Amour,” Tel Quel, 74 (Winter 1977). The invocation of such imagery must wait until psychoanalytic theorists prove receptive to supplementing intrapsychic notions of subjectivity with insights gleaned from the intersubjective plane. Until such time, theories of intersubjective encounter in the pre-oedipal phase will be banished to the dark, female underworld. This is equally true for Lacanian post-structuralists, for whom the unconscious is a language, structured around the self-present symbol of the phallus. (Lacan's humans are linguistically founded because language is prior to experience and present at the “mirror stage,” the founding moment of the self. Lacan thus relegates all pre-lingual interaction to the non-human, unspeaking realm of animals while rooting the phallus ever more securely as a hermeneutic center, the still point around which the world swings. In Lacan's pre-oedipal world, intersubjective encounter is largely pre-lingual and therefore more animal than human.) See Lacan, J., “Instance de la lettre dans 1’Inconscient.” “Le stade de miroir comme formateur de la fonction du ‘Je.’” in Ecrits, tome I (Paris, 1966). Also, “Signification du Phallus,” Ibid, tome II.

40 Benjamin, J., The Bonds of Love, 45.

41 Benjamin owes a clear intellectual debt to the Frankfurt school, a debt which she readily (and repeatedly) acknowledges in the footnotes. More specifically, it seems to me that Benjamin is working through issues which Habermas also raises in his Theory of Communicative Action, namely, issues of identity formation via intersubjective encounter. Both are concerned with what Habermas terms the “paradoxical” achievement of subjectivity: “Subjects who reciprocally recognize each other as such, must consider each other as identical, insofar as they both take up the position of subjects; they must at all times subsume themselves and the other under the same category. At the same time, the relation of reciprocity of recognition demands the non-identity of the one and the other, both must maintain their absolute difference, for to be a subject implies the claim to individuation” (Habermas, J., “Sprachspiel, Intention und Bedeutung. Zu Motiven bei Sellars und Wittgenstein,” in Wiggershaus, R. W., ed., Sprachanalyse und Soziologie (Frankfurt, 1971), 334, cited in Dews, , The Logics of Disintegration, 242.). The importance of Benjamin's work lies in her understanding of how power differentials, symbolically inscribed as gender difference, shape these intersubjective encounters.

42 But another paradox nests within the paradox of recognition: We need an independent other, an autonomous subject, in which to recognize our selves. A genuine self cannot be discerned in an object-other, whether Lacan's mirror or Hegel's slave. If the radically separate mind dominates and then imaginatively destroys reality (that which is not-me), it has succeeded in asserting itself absolutely. But the victory is pyrrhic; the Hegelian despot is left standing on a barren, windswept plain. Ozymandias with no slave-subject to recognize and acknowledge his grandiose selfhood.

43 Alice Miller approaches the particularity of Freud's reading from an entirely different angle, noting the peculiar absence of Laius, the primal father whose own hubris first sets the tragedy in motion. Laius's efforts to outrun the consequences of his own misdeeds (killing another man's son) and, more generally, to escape his mortal limits (inevitably, he must die and be supplanted by his son) gives Oedipus's life its miserable and inexorable shape. In Miller's words, Oedipus becomes the guilty victim, who must pay for the sins of the father in his own life, largely because Laius has completely disappeared, from view and from memory. (He is “resurrected” in the form of the law which punished Oedipus and murdered the archaic, pre-moral mother, Jocasta.) See Miller, A., “Oedipus: The ‘Guilty’ Victim,” in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware (New York, 1984).

44 See Freud, S., “Femininity,” New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis (London, 1933). Further, if the mother becomes that which has-not. she who IS-not, then identification with her represents the loss of subjectivity. In an oedipally-organized culture, the female other can have no subjectivity, for men or for women; hence no one, male or female can have an encounter of recognition with her.

45 Foucault, M., History of Sexuality, vol I (New York, 1980), 84–5.

46 Mitchell, J., Psychoanalysis and Feminism (London, 1975).

47 Steedman, C., Landscape for a Good Woman, 72.

48 Ibid, 7.

49 As Steedman puts it, there is a difference “between learning of this (patriarchal) system from a father's display of its social basis, and learning of it from a relatively unimportant and powerless man, who cannot present the case for patriarchy embodied in his own person” (ibid, 79).

50 “The absence of a father as an imparter of patriarchal law must either posit a child's learning of it later than seems psychologically likely, must elevate the streets, schools, processes of socialization, and books to the status of the father, or must substitute a mother who teaches his lessons, passively and simply, a mere agent of the law” (ibid, 79).

51 Ibid., 7, 114.

52 Stedman-Jones, G., “Working-Class Culture in Nineteenth Century London,” Languages of Class (Cambridge, 1982).

53 “By allowing this envy into political understanding, the proper struggles of people in a state of dispossession to gain their inheritance might be seen not as sordid and mindless greed for the things of the market place, but attempts to alter a world that has produced in them states of unfulfilled desire.” Steedman, , Landscape for a Good Woman, 123.

54 Benjamin, , The Bonds of Love, 181.

55 Here, Steedman follows the progressive trajectory first limned in Engels' Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, in which the author asserts that the proletariat's lack of capital denies working-class men the material base for a full-blown domination of women. Paradoxically, the first foreshadowings of the sexually egalitarian socialist utopia appear in the households of the disinherited.

56 Benjamin, W., Illuminations (New York, 1968), 261.

57 In this space, events are understood not so much through contingency and sequential ordering (although these can be relevant) as through exegesis, or symbolic interpretation. It is analogous to the medieval Catholic notion of the “eternal present” (without past or future) in the mind of God (see, for example, Augustine, St., City of God, book V, ch. 9, 10). See also Erich Auerbach's statement that “the here and now is no longer a mere link in an earthly chain of events, it is simultaneously something which always has been and will be fulfilled in the future” (Auerbach, , Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature [Anchor, 1957], 64). The more eschatological aspect of Marxist theory―the bringing to birth of the socialist utopia in the here and now―lodges a messianic fragment in this otherwise linear and historical world view.

58 Steedman, , Landscape for a Good Woman, 128.

59 Weightman, J., “On Not Understanding Michel Foucault,” The American Scholar, (Summer 1989), 405.

60 In Saussure's terms, the structure (langue) remains distinct from its many earthly particulars (paroles). See de Saussure, F., Course in General Linguistics, Baskin, Wade, trans. (New York, 1966).

61 Riley, , Am I That Name?, 111.

62 Ibid., 100.

63 This should be possible even in a postmodern universe, where language no longer enjoys the privileged status of transparent medium through which the world is represented. But commitment to the idea that language does not give us a world, transparently, does not mean that we cannot communicate as subjects within language communities. Thus, Henry Louis Gates has argued that “our histories, individual and collective, do affect what we wish to write and what we are able to write. But that relation is never one of fixed determinism. No human culture is inaccessible to someone who makes the effort to understand, to learn, to inhabit another world” (Louis Gates, Henry, Jr., “‘Authenticity,’ or the Lesson of Little Tree,” New York Times Book Review, 11 24, 1991, p. 30). Also, see Young, I., “The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference,” in Nicholson, L., ed.. Feminism/Postmodernism, 300–23, for an appealing postmodern argument that the modern city provides the model for a community bound by horizontal (if evanescent) encounters of difference.

If “Woman” is Just an Empty Category, Then Why Am I Afraid to Walk Alone at Night? Identity Politics Meets the Postmodern Subject

  • Laura Lee Downs (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed