»ONE IS NOT BORN, BUT RATHER ‘WE’ ARE BECOMING, A WOMAN…” What does it mean to orient oneself in feminism? Dr. Eva D. Bahovec, honorary president of City of Women Association

What does it mean to orient oneself in feminism?

When Kant, in the Age of Enlightenment in his short essay What does it mean to orient oneself in thinking? was addressing the question of orientation in thinking, he started with orientation in space. When we enter a room, we orient ourselves according to what is on the left and what is on the right, according to what is up and what is down; we can rely on the sides of the sky or help ourselves with the compass. We should orient ourselves in thinking in the same way: we need to form a standpoint, or an uttering position, so that we can distinguish between what is enabling thinking and what is preventing it. In the Age of Enlightenment, this was needed because of the Spinozism fight and the atheism connected to it; likewise, today, a big project of enlightenment is again precisely one which is the subject of dispute – feminism.

Feminism: already the word itself is becoming more and more hated. There is nothing wrong with women, we all love women, but feminism – there is something problematic about that, and it is not hard to find a person who would not frown at the word and say: “No, no, no way! No way! I don’t like it!” We can read the following definition of feminism in the Slovene Dictionary of Standard Language (SSKJ) ­– feminism: in a bourgeois society, a fight for women’s equality with men, for instance: She became a passionate feminist. This is, and was supposed to be, the first meaning of the word. The second meaning goes as follows: the occurrence of female characteristics in men. The example of this usage in Slovene standard language: Feminism in eunuchs.

What does it mean to orient oneself in thinking today – 200 years after the Age of Enlightenment – and how is all this connected to feminism? It means that we need to, regularly and time and time again, draw lines inside that which prevailed as tradition and which in critical theory was called official knowledge but criticised as canon in feminist theory. Against this background, the need for re-reading the canon or ‘differentiating’ the canon appeared, as suggested by Griselda Pollock, Linda Nicholin, and others in the field of art. This process first began in the field of literary history, and it was connected to Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own, which is today recognised as a feminist manifesto. It continued with history, which became an institution in the right sense of the word with Georges Duby and Michel Perrot’s project The History of Women. In this history, which is focusing both on real women and on their images, representations and all sorts of definitions of what is woman, we find only a few persons of female gender in the area of art and a few male pseudonyms of female artists, and, of course, a number of names of real men, which are still prevalent today. We shall still be needing The Association for the Promotion of Women in Culture for a long time.

When I take a look at the statistics about women in the arts, I feel like apologising. I apologise to all women and feminists that they are – somewhere, becoming more and more – neglected, overlooked or completely excluded. Like the tapestry on the wall from the novel The Yellow Wallpaper, their – your, our – positions are still taken on by less competent male ‘conquerors’. Probably, the situation is not much better at the Department of Philosophy, University of Ljubljana, which has been ‘open’ for 100 years, where there is only one feminist subject in the curriculum, where there has never been a female head and only a few women are employed. A few years ago, during the polemics about female gender in the Slovenian language, people were making fun of the word form ‘pešec’ (a male pedestrian), hinting at the meaning in the female form of the word ‘peška’ (a female pedestrian), writing it as peška, hinting at the meaning of the word with wide ‘e’ (a fruit seed). Afterwards, during the public discussions we organised, they were assuring us over and over again that male gender in Slovene is a generic gender, and that it includes both men and women. Only a few months ago, we could again read in Delo the discussion about the alleged generic-ness written by an esteemed expert. Nothing has changed to this day: when I get to sign a form or a contract, there are no female forms for professions, and I have to fix them myself. As if it was not crystal clear at first sight that this is exactly what the problem is: that man is positioned as human as such, as ‘we’ people, as everybody.

Today, the reformation of a long – and from the perspective of misogyny – one-sided history is still in process. It is in process in an extremely sensitive area: with the feminist renovation of the queen of sciences – philosophy.

In the book The City of Ladies, which is legitimately believed to represent the beginnings of feminist thought, not reducible to the scheme of the first and second wave of (Anglo-Saxon) feminism, the author Christine de Pizan, a philosopher by profession and marital status, is facing the tradition itself and the fact that everything that was piling up as ‘knowledge’ about women was turning into poison in front of her eyes. Pizan begins her story with double regret; she regrets that history is so hostile towards women, and she regrets that she was born in the female body. The former opens a way to legitimate anger, which is counter- balanced by means of deep argumentation, whereas the latter is positioned as a rhetorical figure of speech, introducing an allegoric vision of the new city of ladies. Both, moreover, point to the internal moment of ambivalence and auto-reflectivity in feminism and philosophy themselves, respectively.

Connected with this is ‘our female’ autonomous uttering position, which can stand up to talking possessively in the name of the other, in place, and instead of the other. The whole book is written in the first person, as a self-substantiating defence, which is developing as an argument, following an argument, or stone by stone in the emerging City of Ladies. Women in this argumentation are not victims of ugly, dirty or evil men. Rather, they are victims of ignorance, limited consciousness and blindness, which both men and women share. Both men and women are not doing well because of it, but women are doing even worse.

If we want to change something in people’s heads, however, we need to provide an economic basis. This was Woolf’s first message: to have a room of our own and three guineas; then we can join her Outsider’s Society and try to establish a position for possible world transformation from the outside, as outcasts. In today’s feminism, the latter is connected to Marx’s position, which is not unknown in our time and space, here and now. It is even more connected with Marx’s ghosts, which were introduced by Derrida at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Marx was pronounced dead by everyone, and all we were left with were his ghosts. Father Marx’s ghosts are talking to us; they are loading us with a multi-layered debt, which we – as ‘responsible carriers’ or orphaned daughters – need to take upon ourselves. Should we be regretting that we were born – not, like Pizan, in the female body – but rather in the body without organs or with cut off limbs, which is called ‘region’. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall and before it started shamelessly opposing the right to abortion, it (i.e., the region) joined a greater whole with an ambivalent but imposing intellectual heritage. Thus, as far as our Marx is concerned, we need to review everything again, starting with the category of material production and economic exploitation. By doing that, we can rely on feminist revisionism, which is insisting that there is not one type of production but rather two kinds of production: the production of things, capital and money, and the production of people (or reproduction) – giving birth, breastfeeding, nurturing – and any type of care, which Sandra Lee Bartky importantly categorised as ‘emotional work’. Unpaid housework is not the only problem; the whole foundation of all human history is the problem – from Neolithic cultures to the actual baby propaganda with some philosophers preaching ‘It’s about children!’ This foundation has been damaged from the start, so no good can be born out of it.

What is enlightenment? This is the question that was publicly put forth in the Age of Enlightenment, at which time and to which they also found the answer: Sapere aude! Dare to know, have the courage to publicly utilise your mind, make the individual choice – which is the prerequisite for collective action. Two hundred years after Kant, Michel Foucault, one of the proponents of the Enlightenment, in the very year of his death, returned to this question and translated it into the problem of actuality, of ourselves, here and now, us. This is the actuality that can be broadened – instead of into identity politics, and later into Derrida’s introduction of ‘personal name politics’ – into ‘personal pronoun politics’, and which was of key importance for the initial question: What does it mean to orient oneself in feminism?

The question of the universal is thus joined by the moment of philosophical carpe diem, albeit the latter has always been pinned to the human as such, who is constituted on the basis of a certain primordial exclusion – that is, the exclusion of women. Just as Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen included only men and excluded women, women were also not allowed to participate in the French Revolution. The doors into philosophy were not even left ajar for them. Mary Wollstonecraft, a passionate admirer as well as opponent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, has only recently begun entering textbooks, despite the fact that her Enlightenment feminist manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Women represents a milestone in the ambivalent and auto-reflexive position of feminist utterance, and it is being investigated by Shoshana Felman, Judith Butler and Wendy Brown. Enlightenment feminism is, at first sight – but only at first sight – plagued by authentic feminist misogyny. However, it is the main ingredient of feminist reflective thought. Feminism is a project against domination and subjugation, and simultaneously against all that has become of women in patriarchal conditions.

We needed to wait until the 20th century for the philosophical recognition of otherness and difference, when – in the late 1940s – one of the most influential books of that century was published – Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Already in the first sentence, we find out how ambivalent the project of the Enlightenment is: “For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on woman.” As demonstrated by Nancy Bauer, Beauvoir’s standpoint I am a woman can be put alongside Descartes himself and the new substantiation of the ‘thinking subject’. Against this background, substantiated in the politics of uttering, has grown the woman who is not only the negative – a diminished model or a mirror image of the male Subject, Human, Universal, One – but is the Other as such. The woman is the paradigm of the other: she has always been different and has always already been dominated.

Yet because of this – and here is the brilliance of the derivation – there is no reason, meaning, function, no cause or goal. The permanence of the female secondary status, which can be explained neither as naturally given nor as socially constructed, is due to sheer whim of coincidence and Aleatoricism. Mallarmé’s verse A throw of the dice will never abolish chance, which was being offered as a new formula in contemporary critical theory, is even more pertinent when we think about the woman and her – non-substantiated and completely groundless – subordination. This is the move that moves Beauvoir into the very centre of contemporary philosophy, somewhere between Louis Althusser and Gilles Deleuze. However, she is not visible there; neither textbook writers nor Badiou nor Žižek see her. Žižek’s and Badiou’s exceptional sharpness of thought can encompass almost everything, whatever sprouts up on the popular theoretic scene, but they remain blind, deaf and mute to Beauvoir and feminist critique.

Last but not least: Thinking through the body. This is the title of the book by an insightful researcher of feminism and psychoanalysis, Jane Gallop, which she decorated with a photo of her own childbirth. Freud’s abandonment of the theory of seduction as a real event in the childhood of the hysterical woman – and the violence against women connected to it – was the target of sharp criticism in feminism, which unexpectedly fell in line with conservative denunciation of psychoanalytical ‘attack on the truth’. In her book Feminism and Psychoanalysis: The Daughter’s Seduction, which we all need to pick up again, Gallop provocatively put ‘the seduction of the daughter’ in place of the seduction of the father in the Oedipus triangle or – in the case of her writing – the father of psychoanalysis himself. From here, I believe it would be possible to derive a critique of louder and louder calls and shouts of “it is about the father,” the ‘psychoanalytic’ clutter about absent fathers, fathers on the run, the collapse of the father’s function and so on, as well as the “scientific” culpability of the mother as the source of the son’s or daughter’s pathology, if not the source of evil as such.

Although Freud’s ghosts are not any less ambivalent than Marx’s, and despite the fact that Freud is not our prince on the white horse, we find it hard to imagine a conceptual framework that would help us better think gender and gender difference, as well as elucidate ‘how a woman becomes.’ Rarely has so much ink been spilt on the anatomical differences between the sexes, on phallus and clitoris, on how the woman lacks an organ, Lacan’s –φ, but also has one too many, which Freud enigmatically sets down as +++. Rarely has female sexuality been explored with such epistemological care, despite Freud’s constitutive male blind spots. As we know from the History of Women, the history of anatomy waited for more than a century before even recognising the existence of the organ of female pleasure, but it seems we have not learnt the lesson. Thus, in many parts of the world, nowadays, women are still being circumcised, whilst the intellectual tradition and political perversion calls this transparent misogyny and astounding form of male domination culture. “Let’s respect cultural differences! And preserve patriarchy…”

Nowadays, everything seems to be culture. It is due to this new schematism of ‘the world’s mind’ that we cannot but return to Marx’s Capital and his emphasis on economy, to Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and his emphasis on libidinal economy, as well as, last but not least, to Nietzsche and his On the Genealogy of Morality, which can help us precisely because we need to free ourselves from the ghosts, heritage, infinite debt or introjection of symbolic mandate. Nietzsche’s insightful analysis of the creditor and the debtor will –beyond all attempted explanations of male domination with the help of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, and actual attempts to see Hegel in Deleuze – help us search for escaping roads and pave the way into an anti-Oedipal world.

It seems all we can do is orient ourselves according to Beauvoir and her formula, One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. As if I were following the personal pronoun politics, which Julia Kristeva (in her interview for the Parisian Le Monde) changed into the formula, One is not born, but rather, I become, a woman. Let us follow this variation of the famous feminist slogan; in this grey zone of becoming, somewhere in between Yugoslav utopias and Nordic feminist heterotopias, let us passionately throw ourselves into reading about philosophical tradition and feminist innovations – up to the unimaginable dimensions? It seems the right time is now, and the right place is the City of Women festival.

One is not born, but rather ‘we’ are becoming, a woman.

 Dr. Eva D. Bahovec, honorary president of City of Women Association