Wednesday, February 18, 2009

WMST 621: "French Feminism"

I want to begin with chapters four and five from Claire Duchen’s book Feminism in France: From May ’68 to Mitterand because these chapters were so profoundly satisfying with their clear summaries and orderly thinking about philosophers that I find complex and confounding. In many ways, I put this reading in the bucket of “perfect for graduate students!” Duchen in the chapter “Feminists and (French) philosophy” captures the significance of philosophy for French people by providing some historical context and some sense of French thinking and temperament. While this section was brief, I found it helpful in terms of contextualizing both the work she is doing in her writing and also the broader readings for this week. Duchen continues in the chapter by providing incredibly clear and cogent summaries of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan. Most significantly to me, I was interested in the ways that she positioned Derrida and Lacan as more directly influential on feminist thinkers and Barthes and Foucault as still influential but in a less direct way. In the next chapter, “The concept of the feminine,” Duchen opens with a way of thinking about French feminist writers that shows how central discourse is to challenging patriarchy and how this is rooted in psychoanalysis and epistemology at the root of French thinking. Duchen then goes on to again provide clear and cogent summaries of Kristeva, Irigaray, Cixous, and Psych et Po which she positions as forming the “concept of the feminine” as a central question of French feminist theory. Duchen concludes her discussion in a thoughtful and provocative way. In this chapter she has demonstrated the significance of these writers and their relationship to French theory and philosophy and in her conclusion she problematizes the very construct through a series of questions and by saying “the danger of difference is that it can lead to a political and theoretical impasse, to a political ‘ghetto’ shared by the happy few and divorced from the rest” (p. 102.) Duchen concludes that her aim has been to formulate not answers but questions so that the answers may be further sought. This seems to me to be an excellent model for scholarly exploration.

While I am effusive about these chapters, I’m aware that my sense of having things well explained and summed up by Duchen is a feeling of which to be wary. On one hand, Duchen’s broad knowledge and clear writing creates discursive assurance, but on the other hand such assurance is something for suspicion. Certainly the nuances and textures of Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Kristeva, Irigaray, Cixous, and Psych et Po are much more than she presents and it is within these crevices that more engagement emerges. So while I am appreciative of Duchen’s work, I’m also appreciative of it in dialogue with the other weekly readings.

“Made in America: “French Feminism” in Academia” by Claire Goldberg Moses is also an exciting and stimulating article for what it does in reshaping my understanding of “French Feminism.” In this article, Moses recounts emerging contemporary French scholarship on the history of the women’s movement in France. In doing this, she is able to examine how feminism in France parallels feminism in the United States in interesting ways and how the writer’s who come to represent “French Feminism” in the United States are in fact not central to the movement in France. (In fact a key argument of hers has to do with the conflation of writers and feminists.) In particular, her account of the ascendancy of Psych et po was fascinating especially in light of what was then known and unknown about their financial situation. Moses then examines the ways that “French Feminism” was constructed in the academy through publishing in feminist journals and the construction of books and anthologies. In her conclusion, she argues that the U.S. academy has “exoticized and even eroticized French feminism” and that a consequence of this “we have abused our power. . . which proved injurious to the interests” of “very real French women” (p. 265.) While I am not entirely convinced of this conclusion (it seems to me in general this is a function of the movement of ideas across different countries/communities of practice/etc. and labeling it injurious is a little farther than I want to go), I was impressed and intrigued by the different strands of analysis that were mobilized to reach the conclusion. I think it is an interesting way of thinking about the writers with whom we engage this week.

Kelly Oliver’s French Feminism Reader, published in 2000, interested me in a number of ways. First, by way of Summary, what Oliver does is bring together selected writings from eight French feminists: de Beauvoir, Le Doeuff, Delphy, Guillaumin, Wittig, Kristeva, Irigaray, and Cixous. She combines these selections with quite thorough introductions by a variety of scholars that provide not only biographical information but a quite thoughtful analysis of the work. One of the things that is striking in reading this work in relationship to feminist theory from the United States is the way that these writers engage with “continental” philosophers. I was intrigued by this having just finished two books by contemporary queer theorists who are engaging philosophy in this way (Ahmed and Winnubst) and realizing how much this doesn’t feel to me a part of my/our (?) intellectual tradition.

The other thing that interested me in the book is the way that the tension between materialist feminism and post-structuralist feminism emerges in the collection. I’m not sure that this was a conscious strategy of Oliver in assembling the anthology, but it seemed evident to me (though I’m keenly interested in this debate right now.) As this is not an area that I imagine we will discuss tonight given the description of our guest, it is something I’m interested in talking about here if others are.

Other questions I am interested in for discussion from this week’s reading include:

  • •Can we tease out further some of the relationships that these writers see between psychoanalytic theory and language/semiotics?

  • •How do Irigaray and Cixous in particular see “lesbian” similar to and different from Rich in “Compulsory Heterosexuality?”

  • •What do you think about Moses call in her article to be more direct about the disciplinary grounding of work? And what about the assertion that “Today [1998], the predominant discipline in women’s studies is literature, and especially that kind of literary studies that has been influenced by the discourses and concerns of philosophy.” (p. 261.)

  • •I’m also keenly interested in feminist theory of the 1970s that is polemical in form (though we’ve not read tons of in here yet, there is tons – CM mentioned The Furies, Redstockings, Valerie Solanas and many others produced a particular type of polemical theory that interests me). I consider some of the material that we read for today in that polemical form and spirit and am interested in making those connections as well.

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