Rethinking the Ontological Basis of Feminisms

Feminism made a mistake in trying to make “women” a discrete, ahistorical group with common characteristics.” – Judith Butler

”No (wo)man- not even his (her) body- is sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for self-recognition or for understanding of other (wo)men.” – Michel Foucault (modifications mine) (Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, ed. Donald F. Bouchard. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977) p. 153)

Let’s begin with some questions:

  • How is “woman” constituted in a field of power relations?
  • How is “woman” constructed in terms of sex and gender?
  • Can “woman” be a stable basis for feminism- especially as it becomes clearer that “woman” does not encompass the subjects of feminism?

I think I’ll take cues from post-modernist feminists and relentlessly question the notion of “woman” as the subject of feminisms. Given that Third Wave Feminisms (presumably) tend to be more intersectional and inclusive, I’ve reached a conclusion that here is no universal epistemological position, no concrete “women’s experience” from which knowledge can be constructed. In fact, the assumption that “woman” is the subject of feminism is increasingly faulty.

Judith Butler elucidates this in her characteristically verbose manner:

“Gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather gender is an identity tenuously constructed in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts. The effect of gender is produced through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.” (Judith Butler (1990). Gender Trouble:  Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, pp. 140)

I’ve been moving toward speaking specifically of sexed bodies and the body as site of power, as this analysis allows us to more fully examine gender and sex at the individual and societal level. Deconstructing “woman” as construct and gendered bodies as sites of power poses a challenge to the fundamental tenets of most feminisms, which are ontologically rooted in gender-based oppressions, and the intersections therein.

“Woman” as Subject of Feminism, “Woman” as Problematic

But, back to my first point: “woman” as subject of feminism is problematic. How do you define “woman?” Is “woman” shorthand for the cissexist term “wombman” which ascribes gender on the basis of anatomy or physiognomy? Is “woman” an identity dependent upon the oppressions to which she is subject? Or do we simply define “woman” in terms of gender identity and performance?

We are all  constructed subjects- whether gendered, racialized, socialized, classed marked ‘disabled’ or otherwise left unmarked. This does not mean that we can never have agency. It just means that our subjectivities are conditioned. Power- rather, juridical systems of power- produces a subject. (Michel Foucault. (1980) “Two Lectures” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon Books. p 98) This conditioned subjectivity- self as an effect of power means that we are juridical subjects, as well as subjects of biopolitical administration. We are counted, we are named, and we are constructed, thus known.

I propose we make sexed/racialized/classed/(dis)abled/and so on bodies the subject of feminisms- corporeal feminisms. This allows for greater complexity in analyses of power relations- particularly in terms of the exercise of biopolitics over the corporeal body and the body politic.  At the core of every point I make about our gendered/raced/(dis)abled/otherwise marked bodies is that we are souls inhabiting bodies. By no means do I stake human ontology in our socially-marked bodies. That shapes our experiences, but it’s not who we are. Indeed, subjectivity is not identity.

Another basic assumption I employ is that the body pre-exists the “acquisition of its sexed significance.” (Judith Butler (1990). Gender Trouble:  Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge. pp 129) This is a base assumption in the sex/gender distinction, as well. I have not yet worked out whether I configure this pre-existent body as passively inscribed upon (for “The body is the inscribed surface of events” (Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, ed. Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 148)) or active (and if so, how is it active?). I am also inclined to reject the notion that this pre-discursive body has a ‘natural’ sex- that is, that it has a ‘default’ or unmarked sex. Here, I would quote Foucault, and say that the task of genealogy is to “expose a body totally imprinted by history.” (Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, ed. Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977) p. 148)

Thanks for reading along. I’m still tinkering with ideas. This post is a jigsaw puzzle piece along with “What Do I Mean By Feminism?” Clarifying a Fundamental Misunderstanding” and “On Ontology, Structure and Resistance.”

Recommended Readings:

On Post-Colonial/Post-Modern/Post-Structuralist/Corporeal Feminist Thought and Related Works

  1. Chandra Talpade Mohanty. (2003) Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press
  2. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. (1999) A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Past. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  3. Sara Ahmed. (2000) Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. London: Routledge
  4. Linda Tuhiwai Smith. (1999) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books
  5. Obioma Nnaemeka. (1998) Sisterhood, Feminisms and Power: From Africa to the Diaspora. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press
  6. L. Amede Obiora. (1997) “Feminism, Globalization and Culture: After Beijing,” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies: Vol. 4: Iss. 2, Article 5. [Download here]
  • This article examines the human rights regime from a legal and a feminist standpoint
  1. Sherene Razack. (2002) Race, Space, and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society. Toronto: Between the Lines
  2. Jasbir Puar. (2007) Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke University Press
  3. Mayda Yegenoglu. (1998) Colonial Fantasies: Toward a Feminist Reading of Orientalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  4. Julia Serano. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press [download the PDF here]
  5. Elizabeth Grosz. (1994) Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Theories of Representation and Difference). Bloomington: Indiana University Press
  6. Wendy Brown. “Power After Foucault” in the Oxford Handbook of Political Theory, pp. 65-84
  7. Nancy Hirschman, “Feminist Standpoint as Postmodern Strategy,” from The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. Ed. Sandra Harding. New York: Routledge, 2004
  8. Michel Foucault. (2003) “What is Critique?” in The Essential Foucault. eds. Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose. New York: New Press. Pp. 263-27
  9. Michel Foucault (1990). “Two Lectures” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. ed. Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon Books. pp 78-108
  10. Judith Butler. (1997) ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’, in K.Conboy, N. Medina, and S. Stanbury (eds.) Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 401–418.
  11. Judith Butler (1990). Gender Trouble:  Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge
  12. Michel Foucault. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (trans. Alan Sheridan) Allen
    Lane: London
  13. Michel Foucault (1990), The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge, trans. Robert Hurley, New York: Vintage Books
  14. Alison Stone. “Toward a Genealogical Feminism: A Reading of Judith Butler’s Political Thought.” Contemporary Political Theory, 4,  2005 Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 4-24
  15. A. Balsamo. (1996) Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women Duke University Press: London

See also:

  • Angela King. “The Prisoner of Gender: Foucault and the Disciplining of the Female Body” (PDF)
  • Alison Stone. “Toward a Genealogical Feminism: A Reading of Judith Butler’s Political Thought.” (Link)

2 Comments

  1. So two comments:

    Love this: “We are counted, we are named, and we are constructed, thus known.” My first thought? What about I think therefore I am?

    In re: “I propose we make sexed/racialized/classed/(dis)abled/and so on…” let’s add sexual orientation/cultural identity (both location and religion)/livelihood.

    Fodder for future writing – deconstructing The Jess – Female, Atlantic-Highlands-North-Western-European, Middle-Class, (At Times) Disabled, Heterosexual, American, Protestant, and, literally, The Man. A followup on my relationship with My Wife (the slow cooker) is also appropriate. ;)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s