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Dealing with circularity in feminist thought

Reviewing feminist literature and writings regarding its subject of

study, its not difficult to come across with, at least, two important
binarisms that develop into a sort of paradoxical or circular relationship.
Before getting into them I consider necessary to express that, in my
opinion, the attempt to resolve these paradoxes, if ever possible, can
become a risky movement towards simplifying, flattening and erasing
the complexity of the matter. It would be dangerous, not only in the
sense that it would be a disregard of the many layers and dimensions of
the phenomenon, but would also imply the denial of important aspects
of women lives and realities, which is as violent and repressive as what
is being criticized is the first place. Hence, it appears that the only way
left is to embrace the complexity of our topic and engage ourselves in
the search for those cleavages and gaps, that allows us to introduce or
illuminate different emphases, dynamics, etc.
In relation to the binarisms and paradoxes that I was commenting
earlier there are two sets of contrasted ideas that keep coming to my
attention: equality/difference and universality/specificity. In the first the
focus is in women and mens differences and the interrogation whether
those differences are culturally produced or something rather essential.
In the second set of ideas, the focus is set into, in my opinion, the way in
which we will understand identity. As a psychologist formed in
psychoanalysis I have been brought up to conceive subjectivity no only
in its coherence (identity) but also as result of the encounter of historical
circumstances, genealogy and our unconscious. This particular binarisms
between the universal (total) and the specific (partial) has reminded me
not only the importance of not treating identity and subjectivity as the
same, but how to engage in interdisciplinary dialogues avoiding this risk
by using new approaches and concepts. I consider that both of the
authors I have chosen for this essay, Butler and Young, consider these

subtleties and find a way to work in the edges of concepts and

One of Butlers central arguments is her critique on the distinction
between sex and gender, arguing about the impossibility to consider
(female) subjectivity outside or prior to culture and/or language
structures. Her re-introduction of Foucaultians ideas in relation to power
and knowledge in to gender studies, reminds us to revisit the
implications of these juridical power structures in our lives.
In another, but not so different side, Young, engages herself in
finding a different approach to acknowledge womens representations
and identity issues so particularities between them would not be erased
in the process. In order to do so, she introduces a concept from Jean
Paul Sartre known as seriality. Through it she comes up with a way
regarding women without fixing nor universalizing the category. In
other words, both authors pretend, through their own arguments and
ideas not to dissolve the category of women but to treat it in its plural
and heterogeneous status. Both of the following quotes show how Butler
and Young sympathise, but dont necessarily settle, with the importance
of thinking women as a group, I also agree with those who argue that
there are pragmatic political reasons for insisting on the possibility of
thinking about women as some kind of group (Young, 1994, pp. 713714), For feminist theory, the development of a language that fully or
adequately represents women has seemed necessary to foster political
visibility() This has seemed obviously important considering the
pervasive cultural condition in which womens lives were either
misrepresented or not represented at all (Butler, 1999, pp. 4).
Its rather critical to be aware of the risks of dissolving
representations by considering them not truly faithful to women actual
reality. It would only disregard and marginalize them even more and
perpetuate patriarchy and totalizing structures. In her search for new

ways to address gender and women heterogeneity, Young finds help in a

Sartres concept known as seriality, she says,
Understanding gender as seriality, I suggest, has several
virtues. It provides a way of thinking about women as a social








attributes or a common situation. Gender as seriality, moreover,

does not rely in identity or self-identity for understanding the
social production and meaning of membership in collectives
(Young, 1994, pp. 723)
I find it necessary to highlight certain ideas in Youngs approach
since I find them relevant for treating gender in a more fluid and
dynamic way. Mainly, I would like to rescue the notion of anonymity or
exchangeability, affiliation and a certain sense of restraint that Young
argues, is inherent to it. I shall address affiliation and anonymity
together because in my understanding the latter, in a way, can be
thought as a production of the first.
In her text Young (1994) develops that in a series individuals
come to be together rather that seek consciously to become a group. In
that sense the filiation process, if one can still call it that way, is both
passive and in relation to an object or material reality that, from my
point of view, pre-exists them. The former has a direct implication in the
way they can relate and feel as a group; in the authors words, though
they are in this way a social collective, they do not identify with another,
do not affirm themselves as engaged in a shared enterprise, or identify
themselves with common experiences (Young, 1994, pp. 725). In this
sense individuals







dispensable, precisely because they dont belong because of an element

of their identity that is their own. This argument rises some interesting
questionings to the idea behind identity and the necessity to think this
concept in a way that can hold and include contradictions.

The other important aspect in this alternative to groups is what

Sartre calls its practico-inert reality. Young (1994) shows how the original
author of the concept reminds us that the structure of a series is
determined by how human actions are linked to certain objects. Its
important to keep in mind that this actions (made by individuals)
produce certain material outcomes that tend to be reproduced by,
maybe both, collectives and individuals. This is known as the milieu of
action, the milieu is the already-there set of material things and
collectivized habits against the background of which any particular
action occurs (Young, 1994, pp. 726). The total system of objects,
relations established with them and effects of those relations, even








themselves (and others) powerless to alter this material milieu. One can
say that milieu is lived or experienced with a certain sense of alienation.
I find this, in particular, very relevant for thinking the gender system.
One of the counter arguments that can be made to the idea of
thinking men and women in terms of equality and that the differences
among them are merely cultural is taking culture for granted. Culture,
as complex network of meanings, rituals, values, relations of power, etc.
even though is a result of how individuals, collectives and groups relate
to their environment, is actually experienced as something external to
them. Probably this is why its not just a matter of automatically doing
things different in order to achieve the desired change; since the
infrastructure in which we freely operate is not longer ours, we are much
more alienated to it that what we can actually notice.
Gender, as a series, can be then understood as a matrix of
possibilities and impossibilities for the advent of subjectivity. In womens
case with more impossibilities than possibilities. I find here an interesting
link to how Butler develops and understands the notion of gender. As
Foucault, Butler relates power with subjectivity and reminds us that, we,
as subjects under the eaves of certain juridical systems become

determined by them and their requirements. Therefore the question of

women as the subject of feminism raises the possibility that there may
not be a subject who stands before the law () perhaps the subject
() is constituted by the law as the fictive foundation of its own claim to
legitimacy (Butler, 1999, pp. 5). This approach reveals the overlaps
between structure (material conditions) and subjectivity (in the sense of
our singularity) and introduces gender as one if its examples.
From my point of view, such as Young rescues diversity in gender
thinking it as seriality, Butler (1999) considers gender as an apparatus
(dispositive maybe?) of subjectivity production, in which bodies are
established and signified. The author states gender is also the
discursive/cultural means by which sexed nature or natural sex is
produced and established as prediscursive, prior to culture, a politically
neutral surface on which culture acts (Butler, 1999, pp. 11, the
bolds are mine). In this line of argument gender is not to be treated as
some inherent element of humankind and does not lie passively awaiting
to arise. On the contrary, gender under Butlers approach- is thought in
a more dynamic and creative way, as something that is produced in the
convergence among culturally and historically specific sets of relations
(Butler, 1999, pp. 15). This richness within gender is often disregarded in
the attempt of making women more visible and socially recognized as a
category and unity of study. I find it not only necessary but urgent to
develop and legitimate representations with a much more complex
understanding of identity.
Both, Butler and Young, stand for making space to the idea of
incompleteness when regarding categories and identity, in order to
serve as a permanently available site of contested meanings (Butler,
1999, pp. 21). This reminds me of the pertinent psychoanalytical











arrangements and organizations that require some sense of unity can be

though as a possibility or alternative, not the actual reality of the

subject. Provisional coalitions, as Butler calls them, or groups, as Young

refers to them, may be then become a decision regarding certain
purpose or motivation, relieving its coercive force because its not a
structural condition for its existence.
In my impression this paths of understanding gender have opened
the possibility to think in more particular, plural and different positions
available in this matrix. It is still a delicate exercise and requires a









undermining and forgetting the power and positive effects of milieu and
structures of power in which we are placed. Then, without overlooking
the latter, we can begin to think and, even more important, legitimate
the different and singular positions women can and do adopt. In Youngs
words the practico-inert structures that generate the milieu of
gendered serialized existence both enable and constrain action, but they
do not determine or define it (Young, 1994, pp. 730). Thereby it is
possible to construct a position as women that interpellates us as
subjects, questions us internally and which we hold responsible from.
With a similar purpose Butler brings up the idea of displacement as a
way of introducing singularity and novelty into representations. In her
words to operate within the matrix of power is not the same as to
replicate uncritically relations of domination. It offers the possibility of a
repetition of the law which is not its consolidation, but its displacement
(Butler, 1999, pp. 40).
Despite of agreeing with these subjective resistances in my
opinion they are not always guaranteed and they cannot be easily
demanded. Hence I find it important to interrogate and think about the
conditions of possibility so that one can take ownership of the inherited.
What has to happen, both, in the verge of the subject and its
environment for the latter to be possible? Considering and promoting
this conditions of possibility is essential in the proliferation of wider and
more plural ways of representating women and gender.