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Laura Hengehold presents a new, Deleuzian reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s phenomenology, the place of recognition in The Second Sex, the philosophical issues in her novels, the important role of her student diaries and her early interest in Bergson and Leibniz.
According to Deleuze, philosophical problems persist covertly in the actualisation of solutions.
It is an error to see problems as indicative of a provisional and subjective state, through which our knowledge must pass by virtue of its empirical limitations … [a problem] is solved once it is posited and determined, but still objectively persists in the solutions to which it gives rise and from which it differs in kind. (DR 280/359)
For one thing, the solution of a philosophical problem in the social and political domain involves its actualisation in a field of institutions and actions, which inevitably face contingencies and obstacles. For another, the event of perplexing sensibility that gives rise to the problem occurs in a field of other ideas and events with which its effects are intermixed. With what other events is the problem/solution complex of The Second Sex intertwined? What problems might we expect to emerge from the actualisation of Simone de Beauvoir's implicit Idea, from a Deleuzian point of view?
Three potential problems come to mind. First, whatever its initial goals, The Second Sex was historically actualised by a ‘molar’ feminist movement to which Beauvoir eventually lent support. Can movements dedicated to the defence of those who affirm or are assigned to a certain identity support their becoming beyond that identity? Second, The Second Sex is consistently egalitarian, and assumes that all humans should prefer equality to hierarchy – including equality between the sexes – whether or not this is their empirical desire. But is equality always preferable to inequality? Finally, in writing The Second Sex, Beauvoir did assume that history would and should follow a roughly linear progressive path towards the institutionalisation of equality and freedom. Even if it was hard to account for the present existence of sexism using such a linear narrative, given Beauvoir's belief in the artificial nature of gender hierarchy, she seemed to believe that such hierarchies would eventually be abolished along with those of class and race or nationality. These aspects of Beauvoir's project have either given rise to historical problems for feminists or might be expected to do so.
This book began with something like a gamble. What would happen if we read The Second Sex as an exercise in the creation of concepts, as Deleuze defined philosophy? In Beauvoir's Introduction, we found evidence that her thinking process was provoked by encounters with the various forms of nonsense that pockmarked ‘sense’ in a sexist culture. Part 2 of The Second Sex describes many of the habits inculcated in women that render them supports for men's sense but ultimately fail to give them a stable subject of selfrecognition.
There already exists a tradition of reading The Second Sex as a critique of ‘sense’ or meaning in light of Beauvoir's involvement with phenomenology. How do we move from the critique of sense to the act of thinking? According to Difference and Repetition, thinking results when conflicting layers of habit are unable to generate a stable subject of recognition. An Idea whose object is ultimately a ‘problem’ takes the place of a ‘fractured I’. But Difference and Repetition also describes thinking as the successive awakening of impersonal faculties. The dramatisation, actualisation or eventual implementation of the Idea changes the form of the psychological and phenomenological subject who first entered on this journey.
The ‘Idea’ of Difference and Repetition results in a reorganisation of the actual, both in thought and experience. The ‘concepts’ of What is Philosophy? are described as involving components with their own histories, conceptual personae, a pre-philosophical plane and relations of consistency with other domains of thought and life. To read The Second Sex along Deleuzian lines required an investigation of concepts Beauvoir drew from historical figures and philosophical contemporaries such as Hegel, Kierkegaard, Husserl, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. As explored previously in Chapter 2, Beauvoir's text emerged from contact between her observations of sexism and her long-standing interest in human singularity, exemplified by Bergson and Leibniz.
‘One is not born, but rather becomes, woman’ (SS 283/2:13). ‘On ne naît pas femme, on le devient.’ Simone de Beauvoir's statement puts becoming at the heart of her ontology. However, we tend to focus on what becoming a woman might mean, taking the meaning of becoming as self-evident. We are not born philosophers either, and just as womanhood may be something we never actually achieve, becoming a philosopher is not something that happens once and for all. A focus on becoming unsettles even our confidence as to what ‘being born’ might mean.
Concepts are points of passage for becoming. Concepts may name discrete entities such as pianos or musical notes. But pianos are occasions for notes to repeat themselves from one concert or chord to the next, while the memory and desire for music encourage the continual movement of people and instruments around the globe. Pianos also take time to be built and to be tuned so that they are more than mute pieces of furniture, and they break down if left unused or untended. Those becoming philosophers are the people who can't help but notice that just as notes blend into one another and objects gradually shift from one category to another, acting back on the other things they encounter, concepts themselves change colour and meaning depending on the light and on their environment. But unlike a piano, or even the concept of piano, which might belong to a particular technological era and vanish with it, philosophical concepts have an intemporal capacity to enter and slip out of any historical milieu.
Along with discrete bodies, buildings, words, or emotions, wegrapple with the continual change, modulation, or interruption of environments and media, even the media of our own physiology and language. Whether or not humankind is the measure of all things, one's choice of a measure is shaped by the quality of one's encounter with the given.
In the Introduction to The Second Sex, Beauvoir concludes her reflection on whether male-female relations might or might not resemble various historical examples of Hegel's master-slave dialectic with the observation that ‘The division of the sexes is a biological given, not a moment in human history. Their opposition took shape within an original Mitsein, and she has not broken it’ (SS 9/1:19).
Heidegger would be loath to identify Mitsein with a biological given, which seems at first to be the drift of Beauvoir's phrasing. ‘Being with one another’, Heidegger writes, ‘is based proximally and often exclusively upon what is a matter of common concern in such Being.’ In fact, the place of the biological body in Heidegger is almost as obscure as the place of being-with, which he generally regards as a distraction from authentic engagement with the activity of existing. But Beauvoir is not suggesting that the Mitsein is biological, or contrasting biological division with historical division; rather biology (like history) is also experienced by human beings within their social form.
A society is not a species: the species realizes itself as existence in a society; it transcends itself toward the world and the future; its customs cannot be deduced from biology … It is not as a body but as a body subjected to taboos and laws that the subject gains consciousness of and accomplishes himself. (SS 47/1:75)
Our habits of being-with contribute just as much to the production of sense and emerge from this production as do our private experiences. In Volume 2 of The Second Sex, Beauvoir describes concrete situations in which sexist sense produces subjects and objects of immanence; that is, behaviours and experiences corresponding to an unnecessarily and unjustly blocked individuation. This is the form that Mitsein takes for men and women in the society of her time – still far too often in our time.
A novel is a ‘problematique.’ The story of my life is itself a problematique. I don't have any solutions to give to people and people don't have to await solutions from me. It is in this regard that, sometimes what you call my fame, people's expectations of me, bothers me. There is a certain unreasonable demand that I find a little stupid because it would enclose me, immobilize me completely in a sort of feminist concrete block.
The Second Sex had enormous international impact. It appeared before the emergence of second-wave feminism, and influenced Betty Friedan, whose The Feminine Mystique was responsible for the resurgence of liberal feminism in the United States, as well as numerous feminist ideas emerging from the American activist left, such as those of Shulamith Firestone. Excoriated by a largely masculine literary press on its first appearance in France, it was nonetheless well received by women. During the 1970s, it was once again attacked by French feminists emerging from a psychoanalytic, anti-existentialist intellectual culture.
In the United States, despite a truncated translation, Beauvoir's popularity among activists endured and professional philosophers sought to claim her as one of their own, although she had primarily been regarded as a novelist in France. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, real and superficial improvements in the situation of American women made The Second Sex seem out of date to younger feminists, who were, moreover, attempting to understand their place in the history of international colonial and racial domination more accurately. The publication of Beauvoir's letters with Sartre challenged the ‘official’ image of the couple that had been built up in the media and by her memoirs, while European scholars were busy revising the place of existentialism in the Resistance and immediate post-war period.
As Penelope Deutscher has pointed out, there were tensions in The Second Sex between multiple disciplines and conceptual methodologies on which Beauvoir drew to portray women's ‘lived experience’. Mariam Fraser, like Foucault, suggests that we do not even have a concept of the human ‘individual’ except insofar as built up by a plurality of disciplines and scenes of interaction and imagination.
In the Politics, Aristotle identifies community – specifically the political state or polis – as part of what it means to be human, as an aspect of the form of being human that develops over time. Aristotle contends that there is no such thing as ‘form’ apart from specific formed individuals, but it is unclear how the form ‘enters’ matter; especially in the process of reproduction. Deleuze and Guattari's challenge to Aristotelian hylomorphism involves an alternative account of the forming and modulating process whereby various flows and becomings intersect reliably enough to strike the observer as individuals of a certain kind. If we ask about the generation of individual humans, we must also ask about the generation and individualisation of the social structures Aristotle considered a necessary effect and environment for human form.
Where does Mitsein come from, in other words? For the approach of Deleuze and Guattari implies that what Heidegger calls Mitsein is a process, not just an ontological condition of already-individuated beings whose being is given meaning by time. It cannot be, as for Heidegger, a given or universal; it must be a contingent assemblage – albeit a very common one. In other words, an event. But an event is also defined by a problem and its solutions. In Beauvoir's corpus, particularly The Second Sex, Mitsein is converted from a given into a problem, because of the way that its sense negatively affects women.
As Beauvoir noted in The Ethics of Ambiguity, the problem of Stoicism is that despite its individualism, ‘what depends on us’ depends on a plurality, not on an individual, and this plurality is riven with conflict (EA 82/119). Human beings, as a group and as individuals, are singular and not just numerically distinct assemblages. Thus, the event the Stoics believe we must counteractualise involves a heterogenous plurality of bodies with different interests. Beauvoir repeatedly tries to solve this problem by linking the moral freedom of the individual who is in the process of transcending or individuating to the moral freedom of those from whom she separates.
‘To what are we dedicated if not to those problems which demand the very transformation of our body and our language?’
In What is a Woman?, Toril Moi interprets The Second Sex, particularly its Introduction, as sharing assumptions about the relationship between philosophy, voice and the everyday with ordinary language philosophers. ‘What is a woman?’ in other words, what does this word really refer to, and why does it seem to bring so much more baggage with it than simple reference to a human being with female anatomy? Moi hoped to show that Simone de Beauvoir was arguing against a very specific notion of femininity as somehow ‘pervasive’ in every aspect of such a human being's life, such that nothing women did could remain untouched by sexual or reproductive concerns. She also wanted to show how Beauvoir's style negotiated the pitfalls of her implication in ‘false’ philosophical problems such as the supposed partiality obstructing her legitimacy as a philosopher. In doing so, finally, Moi wished to detach Beauvoir from contemporary claims about the ‘social construction’ of gender, no less than from ‘essentialism’, and indeed from any notion of a distinction between sex and gender.
Both Moi and Nancy Bauer contend that the term ‘woman’ can be useful to feminists without entailing metaphysical commitments. Indeed, Bauer believes that The Second Sex and other feminist writings provide evidence for why philosophy ought to reconceive itself apart from metaphysics.
Without wishing to deny the validity of many of Moi's points, and in keeping with her interest in the way a philosophical oeuvre balances personal and impersonal elements, I want to read the same text as an account of the formation of a problem and its associated concepts. The Second Sex is a work of critique in Deleuze's sense – a work that not only delimits and detaches from its object in thought, but also explains how that object came to be. In this sense, it is the critique of a certain metaphysics, even if it obviously does not evade metaphysics altogether.
This article places Foucault's 1977 suggestions regarding the reform of French rape law in the context of ongoing feminist debates as to whether rape should be considered a sex crime or a species of assault. When viewed as a disciplinary matrix with both physical and discursive effects, rape and the rape trial clearly contribute to the “hysterization” of women by cultivating complainants' confessions in order to demonstrate their supposed lack of self-knowledge.
Freud's case study of “Dora” ignores indications that her symptoms might have resulted from a fear of rape. Drawing on feminist adaptations of Lacan, this paper suggests that fear of rape may serve as a horizon for women's ability to perceive themselves as efficacious speakers. Freud's failure to recognize this fear may reflect men's unwillingness to acknowledge their own role in rape as well as anxiety over the possibility of losing his own credibility.
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