[Helpsheet prepared for Phi 383W class, Spring 2000]
NOTES FOR 3/27/00, PHI 383W:
[ Patricia Mann, Andrea Nye, and Alessandra Tanesini ]
Patricia Mann, "Glancing at Pornography: Recognizing Men"
Mann uses the controversy within feminism over pornography as a case study from which to launch a more general investigation of the dynamic of "recognition relations"ˇthe social and interpersonal relations through which people identify themselves and one another and take up their roles as social agents, sexual agents, and signifying (language-using, meaning-making) agents. Both my self-concept and my practical opportunities depend to an important degree upon other people's recognition of me as being a certain sort of person with certain capabilities and characteristics. My self-image is largely formed through my transactions with others and the images they have of me and my sort of person. We can say it this way: the subject (the person) is constituted in and by recognition relations.
Mann argues that the precise dynamic of human recognition relations is historically specificˇit changes over history, as well as from culture to culture. She differentiates early patriarchal recognition relations from late patriarchal recognition relations and contemporary recognition relations. She finds that one way of understanding the contemporary pornography debate within feminism is to see it in terms of a shift that is occurring, but is not yet complete, in the social situation of women and hence in gendered recognition relations. (i) Early on, male sexual agency (males can impregnate women and walk away) shaped gender relations: women recognized men's potency and devised strategies (such as acceptance of heterosexual marriage) for achieving some degree of control of the situation. (ii) By late 19th century, the feeling that patriarchy is simply natural began breaking down. Freud, in effect, provided a new set of arguments legitimizing patriarchy: patriarchal relations now seemed to be mandated not by biology but by psychic necessity. Early childhood family dynamics appeared to set up an inevitable structure of subsequent gender relations. (iii) In the contemporary world, however, family structures and gender roles have changed greatly, so the Freudian picture of family dynamics no longer makes sense for many of us. Recognition relations are again shifting, with patriarchy being still more deeply challenged. Womenˇand other subordinated peopleˇare experiencing themselves differently, and are demanding a different kind of recognition from dominant groups.
Mann finds some useful theoretical groundwork for making sense of the contemporary shifting of recognition relations in the work of Jacques Lacan. Lacan makes desire for social recognition the core of psychic life, and takes language to be the primary site for social recognition. Recognition by the Other is always inadequate, always a "misrecognition," but Lacan emphasizes the positive aspect: it is recognition, even though never fully satisfying. Mann takes Lacan to task, however, for not sufficiently understanding the specific sort of misrecognition women undergo in patriarchal society. For women, misrecognition amounts to nonrecognition. Lacan seems to acknowledge this, yet fails to see the potential for change that is inherent in this situation. Mann points out that women who are socially enfranchised, as many are today, but who still face nonrecognition within the symbolic systems they inhabit are likely to become critical of those symbolic systems and those who benefit from them.
Women's critical response can take many forms. The pornography debates reflect this fact. Feminists who would ban pornography argue that women have pervasively been "signifieds" but not "signifiers," or objects but not subjects. They have been the gazed at, not the gazers. Mann suggests that feminism needs to offer new visions of women as signifiers and subjects. Can we do this, given how pervasive patriarchal recognition relations still remain today? And would we even want to replace the male "gaze" (fixating, objectifying women instead of recognizing them as subjects) with a female gaze that fixates and objectifies men? Mann's suggestion is complex: She finds that women today can function as signifying subjects, even within patriarchal symbolic systems, to a greater degree than we could earlier. In fact, we can even "clothe ourselves in traditional signifiers of femininity" when joining the game or "economy" of symbolic exchange. Yet, of course, there are dangers in doing this; we may just reinforce old recognition relations. So, what else can women do with the signifying agency they are now able to exercise? Perhaps they can respond, not with a return "gaze" that refuses recognition to the Other but rather with a "glance" that does recognize others, does recognize both men and women. Women would then be re-engaging in social recognition relations, but doing so critically, refusing to play the same old game as before.
This would be a different response to the contemporary situation than that of the antipornography feminists or that of the so-called "pro-sex" feminists. Mann uses film critic Laura Mulvey's work in describing the anti-porn and the pro-sex responses. Mulvey's "voyeurism" (a way in which some men watch pornography) becomes, in this context, the response of the woman who wants to punish the male looking at porn for his guilt, by banning porn. And Mulvey's "fetishistic scopophilia" becomes, in this context, the response of the woman who (analogous to the man who enjoys erotic images of women in a "safe" way through porn) now enjoys erotic images of men looking at porn, who, after all, by turning to porn become needy and nonthreatening. Mann finds the antiporn response quite unconstructive, mainly because it "narrows the field" of feminist concern and furthermore, she finds the important issues of agency and power being more effectively addressed today in connection with different issues (abortion, date rape, etc.). But she also finds the "pro-sex" response inadequate, since, after all, the continued problems of domestic violence against women, date rape, and various forms of lack of social recognition for women should show us that the male threat is still there.
II. Sketch of the argument using some of the technical terminology:
The unified, agentic Subject is constituted in (1) the gaze of the Other and in (2) language, signifying systems, symbolic systems, discourses. I.e., the subject acquires a specular identity in specular recognition relations, and a social, symbolic identity in symbolic recognition relations. The life-long desires for these two types of recognition begin (1) in the Mirror Stage when the uncoordinated infant first sees its unified image, and (2) at the end of the Mirror Stage when the child leaves the state of pre-social fusion with the mother and submits to societal and linguistic rules (the "Law of the Father"), thereby acquiring a social identity. So, at least, goes the Lacanian narrative of separation, the Lacanian separation myth, which is still a version of a patriarchal separation myth.
According to Mann, the earlier, Freudian version of the patriarchal separation myth was significantly different from Lacan's version. In Lacan's version, the psychic life of desire is distinctly a desire for social recognition. In Freud, that was not so, at least for malesˇor rather, at least for privileged males. Privileged males did not need recognition from others. They would play out their psychic lives as a search for self-recognition, which they could seek through psychoanalysis as a means to self-understanding. In the Freudian narrative of psychic life, the image of the castrated woman and the separation myth that posits male anxiety inherent in sexual desire (anxiety due to fear of castration).
Earlier still, according to Mann, the desire for recognition had been a desire for social recognition. It was that earlier dynamic of social recognition relations based on mutual anticipatory recognition of male sexual agency that established patriarchy but that Europeans began to disengage from, turning instead to self-recognition, in Freud's time.
Since Freud's theory, even in Lacan's version of it, does not work for, e.g., women who work outside the home, may be single moms, and no longer function within patriarchal recognition relations without experiencing conflict and criticizing patriarchal symbolic systemsˇfor such women, today, Mann suggests that a new female separation myth is needed, to structure the narrative of women's psychic life of desire, and to make it a narrative of female agency (sexual, social, and signifying agency).
III. Backing up still further, for those of you less familiar with the terminologies Mann employs, perhaps the following will help:
- Meanings, signs, symbols seem to have a very special place in the life of human beings
- Many people today think of signs, symbols, and meanings in terms of an influential linguistic theory: the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure.
- For Saussure, the elementary unit of meaning is the Sign, and the Sign is defined as a relation between a Signifier and a Signified. E.g. a word is a sign, consisting of a relation between a sound-image ( /kat/ ) and a concept (the idea of a cat).
- The ideas of a Signifier and a Signified have been, after Saussure, extended in several ways.
- For example, sometimes the Signifier is the meaning-maker, the speaking subject, and the Signified is then the object as defined by the meaning the signifying subject gives it.
- Alternatively, Saussure's concept of a Signifier is sometimes extended to mean the chain of symbolic expressions through which a human agent attempts to communicate, and the Signified is the unstable, partly indeterminate plurality or flux of meanings that end up being communicated.
QUICK NOTES ON A FEW SIGNIFICANT POINTS:
I. Relations among meaning, desire, and power:
Nye finds that neither Anglo-American philosophy of language nor the relatively recent theories of language known as post-structuralism (and/or, sometimes, postmodernism) deals adequately with the relations among meaning, "desire," and "power." Yet desire and power are operative in all language, right along with what we think of as objective meaning. Desire and power are implicated in all statements of objective truth. Nye examines three philosophies of language, and suggests a fourth. As she presents the case:
(i) Anglo-American theories of language try to focus exclusively on objective meanings. Their aim is to be able to use language to express objective, scientific meanings and truths, from which desire and relations of power would both, ideally, be excluded. "Desire" is excluded in the sense that scientific, objective truth is supposed to be value-neutral and to exclude "subjective" influences. "Power" is excluded in the sense that science is supposed to be a product of free inquiry, unhampered by the dictates of any institutional authorities (religion, government, etc.).II. "Prolegomena for a future feminist linguistics [FL]" (p. 332):
(ii) Poststructuralist theorists (centered in France) do acknowledge the roles of desire and power in all language. The two French poststructuralists upon whose work Nye focuses are Jacques Lacan, the psychoanalyst, and Jacques Derrida, the theorist of "deconstruction."
For Lacan, desire for social recognition structures the narrative of psychic life; and power, in the form of "the law of the father" (the rules of our symbolic systems) must be submitted to, in order to function as a speaking subject at all. Furthermore, his theory cannot accommodate the expression in language (or any symbolic system) of female desire; he is too stuck in a patriarchal, Freudian myth of separation. Thus Nye sees a conservatism in Lacan, inasmuch as there seems to be no way out of existing categories and symbolic systems.
For Derrida, desire leaves traces in any written text, and the reader who "deconstructs" the text reveals those traces and allows them to generate multiple meanings, endlessly. But Nye finds in deconstruction apoliticalˇonce again unable to be of use to feminists who want to change power relations.
(iii) "French Feminists" such as HelŔne Cixous and Luce Irigaray, unlike Lacan and Derrida, do not merely theorize the roles of desire and power in language and despair of the possibility of change. They reject the idea that female desire cannot be expressed in language, and they reject the idea that all we can do to create new meanings is reveal and release the traces already present in our texts.
Cixous and Irigaray do not merely acknowledge the presence of desire and power in language. Instead, they seek to express female desire, and to disrupt the structures of power. Hence Cixous's effort to "write the language of the body," avoiding binary contrasts. And hence Irigaray's attempt to engage the male voice, mimic it, cajole it, seduce it into giving up its rigid repetition of patriarchal meanings.
(iv) Even the French Feminists, however, who try to express female desire (instead of leaving women semi-articulate as Lacan's theory does) and who try to disrupt the structures of power (instead of being content to talk on and on, as Derrida would leave them doing), do not yet take the next stepˇthe step of remaking our symbolic structures and remaking our desires. . . so as to achieve mutual understanding, through learning to speak to, and for, one another.
III. What language can do:
- FL must focus on the language we actually use, in and for communication (not just on technical, scientific languages).
- FL must be political. That is, FL must neither (i) get thrown into despair over the rigidity of symbolic structures and laws and give up efforts to change them, nor (ii) be satisfied with attempting to express the insatiability of private desires. Rather, (iii) FL should see language as a constant reworking of desires, and a constituting of power in the form of mutual understanding. Regarded that way, language is the very substance of political action. . . . FL must see language as "remaking the terms on which we live with one another"ˇand speak for one another (since only Yahweh speaks for himself alone).
- FL must study language in context, and must focus on changing the uses of language.
- Note: Anglo-American philosophy lf language claims its motive is to devise formal systems capable of duplicating rational thought. Nye, however, suggests that its real motive amounts to the elimination of the need for personal intervention.
- FL must watch Anglo-American philosophy in wariness of that motive.
- FL must also keep watching its own motives.
Alessandra Tanesini, "Whose Language?"
- "bring people to their and our desire"
- "enter a circle of mutual understanding"
- "seduce our enemies"
- "reveal a simple and obvious truth"
The issue addressed here is this: is gender a useful analytical concept, as feminists in the 1970s and 1980s contended, or is it instead illegitimate and/or harmful in one way or another?
Tanesini examines the evolution of feminist thought on this issue, and then offers her own argument at the end:
[ "The 'inferential-justificatory role' a concept plays in linguistic
practices" means the inferences that are held to be justified when the
concept is applicable. Thus, to call a person "feminine" justifies the
inference, within traditional linguistic practices, that that person is,
e.g., flighty and indecisive. ]