Gendered Agents: Women and Institutional Knowledge

Gendered Agents: Women and Institutional Knowledge

by Silvestra Mariniello, Paul A. Bové

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Gendered Agents, edited by Silvestra Mariniello andPaul A. Bové, presents essays by influential feminist theorists who challenge traditional Western epistemology and suggest new directions for feminism. By examining both literary and historical discourses, such critics as Gayatri Spivak, Hortense Spillers, and Lauren Berlant assess questions of sexuality, ethics, race, psychoanalysis, subjectivity, and identity.
Gathered from various issues of the journal boundary 2, the essays in Gendered Agents seek to transform the model of Western academic knowledge by restructuring its priorities and values. In the introduction, Mariniello urges feminists to begin anew but take as their starting place the achievements of feminism and feminist theory: an understanding of language that considers the implications of silence, the motivation to decompartmentalize experience, and the acknowledgement that everything is political. Challenging both a canonical organization of knowledge and the persistently self-referential "ghettoization" of feminism, contributors subsequently tackle subjects as diverse as pre-Marxist France, the American fetus, black intellectuals, queer nationality, and the art of literary interpretation.

Contributors. Lauren Berlant, Karen Brennan, Margaret Cohen, Nancy Fraser, Elizabeth Freeman, Carol Jacobs, Silvestra Mariniello, Larysa Mykyta, Laura Rice, Ivy Schweitzer, Doris Sommer, Hortense J. Spillers, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Judith Wilt

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822396857
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 06/01/2012
Series: a boundary 2 book
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 440
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Silvestra Mariniello is Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of Montreal.

Paul A. Bové is Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh and Editor of boundary 2.

Read an Excerpt

Gendered Agents

Women & Institutional Knowledge

By Silvestra Mariniello, Paul A. Bové

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9685-7



Women's Ways Against Institutional Knowledge

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak


Responsibility annuls the call to which it seeks to respond.

What is it, then, to be responsible to a changeful thought on the question of responsibility? "[W]hat could be the responsibility ... [toward] a consistent discourse which claimed to show that no responsibility could ever be taken without equivocation and without contradiction?" To open an essay with such a question is perhaps already to betray the ideal of academic responsibility in which one was trained. That ideal was to give an objective account of an argument with textual demonstrations, and subsequently to evaluate it, on its own terms as well as by the standards of an impartial judgment. By comparison with the imperatives of that austere responsibility, the first years of this writer's teaching career, which began in 1965, seemed to be haunted by demands of an extreme irresponsibility toward the impersonality of history and augury: "Do we like it?" "Is that relevant to us?" and then, "to me?"

To open an essay with the question of responsibility to a thought precisely of responsibility from which a lesson of responsibility is learned goes against the grain of both those imperatives. For it is, first, to show that one is already partisan, and, secondly, it is to reveal that one's anxiety is for one's responsibility to the text, not the other way around. Yet, is there not something like a resemblance between those imperatives—requiring objectivity toward, or relevance from, the text—and my opening question? For have we not guessed that the early lesson of disinterested objectivity was, in fact, an unacknowledged partisanship to a sort of universalist humanism which dictated that one show, even if by the way and by default, that the literary or philosophical text in general is good. And as for the other, does one not, given the current demand for the justification of an interest in "deconstructive philosophical speculation" in a politically inclined female migrant, demonstrate again and again its relevance to such inclinations and such provenance?

How, then, to be responsible to the warning for:

a community of well-meaning deconstructionists, reassured and reconciled with the world in ethical certainty, good conscience, satisfaction of services rendered, and the consciousness of duty accomplished (or more heroically still, yet to be accomplished)?

or to the reminder that it is especially when the philosopher—or anyone—tries and tries to explain and reveal, and the respondent tries and tries to receive the explanation and the revelation, that the something that must of necessity not go through is the secret and changeable "essence" of that exchange?

Perhaps there is no answer to this question but the constant attempt "to let oneself be approached by the resistance which the thinking of responsibility may offer thought." Perhaps to be responsible to the question of responsibility is not to resist what will have happened, that the reader(s) will have judged, necessarily with, and in spite of, standards, necessarily related and different. In this the thought of responsibility is a more affirmative formulation of what was written thirty years ago: "[T]hought is ... the blank part of the text." If deconstruction comes tangled with responsibility to the trace of the other, the reader(s) stand(s) in here as the indefinite narrow sense of that radically other which cannot even (have or) be a face.

For this reader, the difficult giving of permission to be approached by that which most resists thought is susceptible to a literal translation (with all the necessity and impossibility that translation calls for and by which it is called). This specific "translation," in this essay, takes off from a literal understanding of statements such as the following:

[T]hese new responsibilities cannot be purely academic.... Between ... [the principle of reason and anarchy] ... only the setting-to-work [mise-enoeuvre] of this "thought" can decide.... To claim to eliminate that risk by an institutional program is quite simply to erect a barricade against a future.

One attempts, then, to set the thought of responsibility to work in ways that are not purely academic. The peculiar (con)textualities of the theaters where each of these attempts is made inscribe an experience of the necessity of such translations and their impossibility. These experiences also teach how conservative it is to remain content with radical institutional programs.

Not being a philosopher by talent and training, I cannot philosophize the delicate ruptures involved in the brutality of these literal translations. That more profound speculation would look upon the night of non-knowledge and non-rule in which all decisions are taken, even when it is the most detailed knowledge that has been set most responsibly to work. (This sentence already begs the question of responsibility, assumes its nature known.) The space of this essay may be distinguished from those more perilous watches as the quicker tempo of the eve and the morning-after of that night, the night of non-knowledge, when a just decision tears time, the time of effect following just cause. What the two spaces share is that "the limit of ... [the] formalization ... [of a problematic is] a sort of intermediary stage."

This is perhaps one way of being responsible to the thinking of responsibility, that whatever is formalizable remains in a sort of intermediary stage. The rest cannot be purely formalized. These steps must be formally taken and experienced as limits before the usual beginnings can be made. Full formalization itself must be seen not as impossible but as an experience of the impossible, or a figure for the impossible, which may be to say the "same thing."

I can formalize responsibility in the following way: It is that all action is undertaken in response to a call (or something that seems to us to resemble a call) that cannot be grasped as such. Response here involves not only "respond to," as in "give an answer to," but also the related situations of "answering to," as in being responsible for a name (this brings up the question of the relationship between being responsible for/to ourselves and for/to others); of being answerable for, all of which Derrida presents within the play, in French, between répondre à and répondre de. It is also, when it is possible for the other to be face-to-face, the task and lesson of attending to her response so that it can draw forth one's own. (I believe both Derrida and Luce Irigaray have seen the psychoanalytic model at its impossible best to accede to this sense of responsibility.)

With this formalization of the problematic of responsibility, seen as an intermediary stage, caught between an ungraspable call and a setting-to-work, this essay will offer two readings, of Derrida's Of Spirit and of the Conference on the World Bank's Flood Action Plan in Bangladesh. My readings will insist that (the thinking of) responsibility is also (a thinking of) contamination. If one will, then, seem to have shown that deconstruction is relevant to what is called the political sphere, after all, it will be the moment to ask you to remember that such demonstrations can only happen within the intermediary stage.


Of all the texts of Derrida that I have read, this seems to me to be the one that assumes in the reader a careful and intimate reading of all the texts on method that have come before, a familiarity with a specialized vocabulary that might otherwise seem deceptively "metaphorical" or transparent. It is, therefore, a "secretive" text, both in the colloquial, and in the Derridian, sense. In the first sense, because it seems to guard its own secret, it is difficult to understand. (To a careless speed-reader, it will even provide confirmation of stock responses.) In the second sense, because, even though to the responsive reader, the text wishes to reveal itself to the full, it still seems to leave the reader with questions. There is nothing authorized about the reading I offer below, and especially about the "reasons" that I submit for the secretiveness of the text. Indeed, I have not tried to pry out the secret by referring to less secretive writings by Derrida on the Heidegger question. The secrecy of the secret does not disappear with revelation. "The secret never allows itself to be captured or covered over by the relation to the other, by being-with or by any form of 'social bond.' ... No responsiveness."

One of the reasons for the "secretiveness" may be the impossibility of a fully justified position of accusation.

In one respect, Of Spirit traces Heidegger's seeming failure of responsibility toward his own thinking. In Being and Time, Heidegger had found it prudent to keep the question of the spirit open, broachable only within quotation marks, if at all. Already in the opening pages of his text, Derrida suggests that, in fact, Heidegger's entire earlier philosophy was dependent upon a question of the spirit that was merely avoided or foreclosed. The spirit works away at the text, finally to emerge with a terrifying role, perhaps precisely because its question had been avoided. Toward the end of section 5, Derrida demonstrates this with reference to the Rectoral Address: "[Sjuddenly, with a single blow ..., the lifting of the quotation marks marks the raising of the curtain.... [T]he entry on stage of spirit itself.... Six years later, and here we have the Rectorship Address" (OS, 31; I take responsibility for extrapolating from this closely orchestrated prose).

Here, for the first time, Derrida writes, Heidegger defines spirit. The definition is not in contradiction with Being and Time, for spirit still does not seem to belong to subjectify, "at least in its psychical or egological form" (OS, 37). We are not speaking, in other words, of the human spirit, even in the most metaphysical sense. Thus, by appealing to such a "spiritual force," unattached to the merely human, the address may

seem ... no longer to belong simply to the "ideological" camp in which one appeals to obscure forces—forces which would not be spiritual but natural, biological, racial, according to an anything but spiritual interpretation of "earth and blood." (OS, 39)

But, and this is why we must proceed cautiously, every comparable gesture turns back "against its 'subject'"—against, if I may say so, its agent, for "one must ... use this word, in fact.... Because one cannot demarcate oneself from biologism, from racism in its genetic form, one cannot be opposed to them except by reinscribing spirit in an oppositional determination" (OS, 39). Thus, one binds the philosophical apartness of spirit by determining it into a narrow sense as that which is the opposite of biologism or genetic racism. It loses its (non)character of guarding question. Hence, it no longer remains prior to—or outside of—all differences between subject and whatever is not subject. It belongs to the subject(s) who rallies (or rally) in its name. It becomes negotiable. It is made to take a side and thus becomes unilateral. Thus,

reinscribing spirit in an oppositional demarcation, ... once again mak[es] it a unilaterality of subjectify, even if [especially?] in its voluntarist form. This constraint ... reigns over the majority of discourses which, today and for a long time [he cannot say forever] to come, state their opposition to racism, to totalitarianism, to nazism, to fascism, etc., and do this in the name of an axiomatic—for example, that of democracy or "human rights"—which, directly or not, comes back to this metaphysics of subjectity.... The only choice is the choice between the terrifying contaminations it assigns. Even if all forms of complicity are not equivalent, they are irreducible. The question of knowing which is the least grave of these forms of complicity is always there—its urgency and its seriousness could not be overstressed—but it will never dissolve the irreducibility of this fact.... [I]t calls more than ever, as for what in it remains to come after the disasters that have happened, for absolutely unprecedented responsibilities of "thought" and "action." (OS, 39–40)

I have quoted this passage at such length because it should be read carefully and slowly. No academic eager to take sides (in "thought") cleanly without any "active" responsibility wants to acknowledge the final and irreducible complicity between all unilateral binding of the spirit in a single cause. And all sustained "activists" know that victories are warnings, without being able to articulate it philosophically, and often silencing that knowledge in the interest of the decision. Derrida attempts to deconstruct that gap. It is not that we must not take sides. We must continue to know, and to make known, "which is the least grave of these forms of complicity." It is just that the decisive testing of the intellectually clear "thought"—which can construct systemic ways and means of avoiding logical risks through the fine-tuning of knowledge—must therefore be in "action," the element of which is the risky night of non-knowledge. This is a position against the vanguardism of theory, not against risk-taking. It is not heroic enough for armchair left liberals. But for those of us who have seen Gandhi's Ram-Rajya (the kingdom of Rama), where, to give Gandhi the benefit of a doubt that he perhaps did not fully deserve, Rama was a nomination of the spirit of indigenous democracy, become the excuse for a state on the brink of a fascism committed to the genocide of Muslims; and who have seen Marx's project of the proletarian's collective use of reason (class-consciousness), where rationality is the nomination of the human spirit, become an imperialism that, in postcoloniality, hankers after an underdeveloped capitalism as an alternative to genocide; and for those of us who daily see the covert and overt violence regularly practiced by the ideological and systemic manipulation of rational principles, such as due process, human rights, and democracy—these warnings must be taken seriously. We cannot necessarily assume, however implicitly, that the European-style invocation of spirit is uncontaminated, whereas other invocations of spirit are by definition ignorant or fundamentalist. The passage I have quoted is hard to understand only if the lessons of history ("the disasters that have happened") have not been heeded. Indeed, inspirational academic heroics must resist understanding here. The implacable logic of the terrifying contamination is doing its supplementary labor in these becomings, these happenings. A "responsible" thought describes "responsibility"—caught in a question necessarily begged in action—as attending to the call of that irreducible fact. This is a practical position, an elaboration of the earlier position that, in effect, practice norms theory.

As a practical academic, it is my unauthorized conviction that it is because of this academic resistance to acknowledgment of complicity that Derrida writes this most painful text in a language that must be learned: in other words, it may be accessible to a reading that is responsible to the text. (The steps of such a reading are laid out in Paul Celan's search for Lenz embedded in "Shibboleth.")

But why is this text painful? I think because in a sense more restricted than the general position outlined above, deconstruction cannot not acknowledge complicity with Heidegger. Precisely because of "responsibility," Derrida cannot, and indeed will not, unlike Richard Rorty, simply separate the man from the work. I have been arguing, in a certain way, that Derrida's is "a teaching language." And indeed that is what Derrida says of the Heidegger of the Rectoral Address:

Here we have a teaching language.... No more than in 1933 does it rehabilitate the concept of spirit deconstructed in Sein und Zeit. But it is still in the name of the spirit, the spirit that guides in resolution toward the question, the will to know and the will to essence, that the other spirit, its bad double, the phantom of subjectivity, turns out to be warded off by means of Destruktion. (OS, 41)

I have been spelling out so far that, according to Derrida, the phantom of subjectify cannot be warded off. Indeed, that is the responsibility Heidegger gives up and thus moves relentlessly toward unilaterality. This unilaterality has a bad trajectory, because the philosophy of Destruktion cannot be used to ward off accountability, answerability, responsibility as répondre de. It can only ever be a reminder of its open-ended and irreducible risk.


Excerpted from Gendered Agents by Silvestra Mariniello, Paul A. Bové. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction / Silvestra Mariniello 1

1. Transgressing Representation: Women's Ways Against Institutional Knowledge

Responsibility / Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak 19

The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date / Hortense J. Spillers 67

The Uses and Abuses of French Discourse Theories for Feminist Politics / Nancy Fraser 123

Veiled Threats: Malek Alloula's Colonial Harem / Laura Rice 144

2. Undoing Discursive Constructions: Alternative Rhetorical Strategies

Maternal Discourse and the Romance of Self-Possession in Kate Chopin's The Awakening / Ivy Schweitzer 161

America, "Fat," the Fetus / Lauren Berlant 192

Queer Nationality / Lauren Berlant and Elizabeth Freeman 245

"The Most Suffering Class": Gender, Class, and Consciousness in Pre-Marxist France / Margaret Cohen 279

Brava! And Farewell to Greatheart / Judith Wilt 306

3. The Politics of Allegory: A New Understanding of Agency

Allegory and Dialectics: A Match Made in Romance / Doris Sommer 325

Blanchot's Au moment voulu: Woman as the Eternally Recurring Figure of Writing / Larysa Mykyta 349

Wuthering Heights: At the Threshold of Interpretation / Carol Jacobs 371

The Geography of Enunciation: Hysterical Pastiche in Kathy Acker's Fiction / Karen Brennan 396

Index 423

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