Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak | NIETZSCHE/derrida


By Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Spurs is about gender. The Grammatology pages I will ask you to look at are about Heidegger and Nietzsche.  Derrida was critical of Heidegger around gender, as his material on Geschlecht shows.  Derrida argues that sexual difference is before propriation.  If you have the time, read a novel by Christine Brooke-Rose called Life, End of. I have included below a paper I wrote on it, “Old Women,” which relates to what I will say about Nietzsche on gender, as also pages 40-41 of the Loeb classical edition of Clement of Alexandria (Demeter and Baubo).  I am also attaching “Displacement and the Discourse of Woman,” a piece I probably wrote in 1979.

Heidegger in Early Greek Thinking (p. 104-5) wrote that Clement suggested that the best in Greek philosophy was already inscribed with the spirit of Christianity and therefore we ought to discard what Kant called the secondary tasks or Nebengeschäfte – such as Baubo worship — the denigration of women.   Peculiarly enough, Nietzsche blocks the idea of the Greeks being more okay than the Christians by simply reversing this statement in Clement about old woman’s genitals [Loeb classical 40-41]. And research shows that his source for this is not at all definitive. When the current apologists for Christian Leninism suggest that Christianity is in its spirit self-deconstructive, they belong to a way of thinking that Derrida in his “Two Sources of Religion” tried to undo, by suggesting that the secondary tasks are not just secondary, but also one of the primary sources of religion.   Incidentally, this is quite useful for our global historical moment, not just Euro-U.S. turf-battles.

Circumfessions – the running footnote (as it were) to Geoffrey Bennington’s Jacques Derrida — takes the idea from Nietzsche of mother/blood::father/name and therefore, I cannot mourn my mother. The Ear of the Other broaches the idea.  I wrote a piece involving Circumfessions in the early nineties that I attach as well, Three Women’s Texts and Circumfession.

Is writing like “writing” – Derrida’s early description of the other way of recognizing Nietzsche – something like writing from a self-consciously contingent epistemological position?  Is it what Brooke-Rose and Adrienne Rich (I am forever thinking of “What Women Need to Know,” an unpopular commencement address given by Rich at Smith College in 1979 to be found in a volume called Blood, Sweat, and Poetry) teach those of us feminists who have also taken on the task of the passing on of legitimacy and the holding of property in other words also complicit with what the phallocentric world wants plus what we have secured, which seems aporetic if we are not to resemble New Age fathers. Here I want to compare my trajectory with Hortense Spiller’s.

The Nietzsche we need now is “Truth and Lie in An Extra-Moral Sense” –  – we need the ability to flex to the extra-moral sense – aporetic now with complicity – and not to forget, at the same time remembering that it is not only the originarity of metaphor that we must think, as in Nietzsche; the concept is also important; this is where Derrida distinguishes his own idea of diffferance from Nietzsche’s, in those Grammatology pages and again in “White Mythology.” And I want to correct myself because my piece called “Supplementing Marxism” (Steven Cullenberg and Bernd Magnus, eds. Whither Marxism? (New York: Routledge, 1995, p. 109-119) does not recognize this.

Experience moves Spillers and me from mothers to gender-inclusiveness – and this should not be dismissed as “liberal biopolitics.”  This can come from the us Baubos if there is an effort to subl(im)ate the fear (I may tell you a story – I keep forgetting it is only 15 min.s – about kamini kanchan).


“The body [staggers and lurches] unless contact is made through headtop hand finger thigh calf with the ground the earth the planet the galaxy the universe. But then the universal is what is wrong with humanity.”  This is a sentence from Life, End of, a novel by Christine Brooke-Rose, an old woman at the time of publication, 83 years of age.[i]  The body is being represented as perceived by the protagonist: as part objects.  Touching the earth is being represented, as perceived by the protagonist, in terms of what we are obliged to call the objectivity of the body, through which, by the simple fact of being on the ground, we are part of the universe.  When we speak of the universal by an act of mind, we create the problems that this audience knows only too well.  This is not an un gendered passage.  The novel is often described as an autobiography.  Throughout this slim book it is very clear that it is a female literary critic who is represented as attempting to come to grips with the pain in a female literary intellectual’s way:

No, it’s an imbalance from the brain’s wrong messages to the inside of the feet and legs, their nerve fibers slowly withering and reversing their tasks, so that where there should be feeling there isn’t and vice versa . . . ..  The legs now burn permanently, hot charcoal on the feet creeping up the shins and knees and growing tall, two burning bushes, two pillars of fire for frail support.  At every step they flinch wince jerk shirk lapse collapse give way stagger like language when it can’t present the exact word needed, . . . . Thalamus means inner chamber, or cavity, or the receptacle of a flower, a ventricle in the brain, and so surely, a cerebral womb.  Yet like a phallus it takes over the medulla’s transmission from the spinal cord to the cerebellum, still in the hindbrain, and sends it all to the cerebrum, the top brain, that convoluted glory as developed in the higher mammals and more especially human.  At any rate this gland is where Descartes places the soul, thus putting de cart before dehors (BR 8-10).

This is mind over matter, the intellectual’s trick to bring things under control.  While she is trying to assert when   matter there, she cannot help but do what the last phrase I have quoted says — she cannot help but bring de cart before the horse. “De cart”   sounds like the French philosopher Descartes.  And “dehors” is the French word for outside.  Read in English, the untranslatable phrase becomes “putting the cart before the horse,” Descartes before the outside, mind before matter even as she tries to control her pain by understanding it as matter, over mind.  A double bind.

In 1976, before producing a robust account of the politics of reading, Derrida had attempted to reverse/displace Nietzsche’s writing as “the feminine ‘operation,’ as have others after him.   I have my problems with this, but I will quote the passage, for it gives the topos:

I fear that women who have grown old are more skeptical in the secret recesses of their hearts than any of the men; they believe in the superficiality of existence as in its essence, and all virtue and profundity is to them only the disguising of this ‘truth’, the very desirable disguising of a pudendum – an affair, therefore, of decency and modesty, and nothing more![ii]

The more famous Nietzsche passage is also quoted by Derrida: “Perhaps truth is a woman who has reasons for not letting us see her reasons? Perhaps her name is – to speak Greek – Baubo?”[iii]

On the track of Baubo we will encounter many fascinating Euro-classical complications that we cannot pursue here.  It is quite possible that Nietzsche finds this staging of truth more attractive than uncritical rational speculation.  Without falling into the famous intentional fallacy, we can submit that this staging of truth as disguised post-reproductive female genitals carries a tone of fear and derision quite unlike the tone of the celebration of a Zarathustra figure.  To see how this position, critical of the honorary male confidence in uncritical speculative reason, can be staged another way,

Tillie Olsen is perhaps the most apposite author; for in her novella  Tell Me A Riddle she takes a Rosa Luxemburg figure, a woman who had participated in the 1905 Revolution in Russia, and then gone the path of marriage, and migration to the United States. It is as if the Rose, grown old in a more “normal” trajectory, shows us the violence of reproductive heteronormativity, expectations from a grandmother who must not care about humanity, but only about grandchildren – the sheer, unremarkable, violence of the everyday, a gendered everyday, that unhinges the mind by a commonplace denial to the public sphere.[iv]   Her faith in progress, in a double bind with individual death, is not groundless because suspended from a metaphor, and should be understood in terms of the double bind of a gendered violence that also spells love and social reproduction.  As the protagonist moves toward death, Olsen weaves passages, sometimes dreamlike that lay out this conflict poignantly. She is scolded because she has scared her son-in-law the rabbi, “Hanna’s Phil,” “At once go and make them change. Tell them to write: Race, human; Religion, none.” And the husband’s response, “ Look how you have upset yourself, Mrs. Excited Over Nothing” (TO 60). The killing cancer described as “being able at last to live within, and not move to the rhythms of others, as life had forced [emphasis mine]  her to: denying; removing; isolating; taking the children one by one; then deafening, half-blinding – and, at last, presenting her solitude….. Now he was violating [emphasis mine] it with his constant campaigning: sell the house and move to the Haven” (TO 68-69). “hunger; secret meetings; human rights; spies; betrayal; prison; escape – interrupted by one of the grandchildren” (TO 95).  “Her  breath was too faint for sustained speech now, but the lips moved: … As a human being   responsibility” (TO 105).   “Dogma dead   war dead   one country” (TO 109).

In 1994, in Politics of Friendship, Derrida makes the useful comment that European political philosophy has allowed woman entry as “honorary males.”  I am suggesting that becoming an academic, like becoming a nun in the European Middle Ages, was one way of becoming an honorary male if one could afford to ignore these kinds of questions, in public, having access to a certain kind of public voice. On a less sublime register than Derrida’s honorary male, I might add here that the injunction to be unisex in the academy – in spite of the small gains of Womens Studies and Queer Studies– has not disappeared.  In the usual everyday sexism of academic conversation I think of Rosa Luxemburg, a writer of books that changed left thinking all over the world, she did not make the grade because no institution protected her.  The final abuse from those who killed her was the usual gendered words floating up: not a political opponent, but a “whore,” a “slut.”  Even as we speak of feminist work, we bracket much so that we can just simply present the ideas – as if they were just content — in a philosophical vacuum.

Here is Brooke-Rose’s representation of another old woman’s wisdom, not a frightening Baubo, but another kind of gendered voice that would domesticate socio-philosophical rationality in terms of the aging head:  “there is now  a fourth revival of Nietzsche in Europe. Who says, somewhere in The Genealogy of Morals, we must stop trying to change the world. Why? Forgotten” (BR 72).

The protagonist of Brooke-Rose’s novel is a dying woman, as is Tillie Olsen’s, but she has been an academic, although she notes early on in the book, that a medical doctor “has her rank to rest on, in a way a doctor in mere Language and Literature does not” (BR 15), a sentiment I feel with social scientists and philosophers.

The fact that this female protagonist has been an academic is as important for this book as it is for Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello.  She can think public subjects without anguish: “A sneaking suspicion arises: aid is given but in such a way as never to solve anything.  Could this shabby treatment be forethought, to kill off tiresome over-population? . . . The crude process of cheating on the people is inexorable?  Well, exore it.  Do the young think?  They now have nothing to complain of.  Is that a complaint?  Who’s talking?  To whom?” (BR 30, 31).

And so she goes, careening between world and self, objective and subjective, dehors and de cart.  If early on the cart had been  put before the horse, mind before matter, even if in a double bind, now at the end the dying female academic writes “of that scrambled ego, because of the wholly captivating groundless ground, the extenuated earth the untrue world the ominous planet the hazy galaxy the lying universe.  Dehors before de cart, after all”(BR 119) – the individual in the ecological cycle.  World and universe lie, and the rest threaten in various ways. When the mind seems in control, matter is  actually winning surreptitiously, on a much bigger, other scale.

This is the old woman as literary critical academic, Nietzsche’s transformed into something rather close to my stereotype of myself.

Let me now move to a different history, a different time, a difference clouds, Mahasweta Devi’s “Statue.”  It is my memory that I spoke about this novella at Goldsmiths in a class last time, but John says no.  Even if I did speak of it, I hope you will see that it is inserted in a different frame, serving a different purpose. I undoubtedly have a special understanding of it, because it is written in my first language and I translated it, and I have always claimed that translation is the most intimate act of reading.  I probably have a sense of the history a bit better because of the accident of my birth.  But in terms of my developed life, I am much more deeply in the grooves of the lives of the women in Olsen and Christine Brooke-Rose.  I present it this way so that you can see that identitarianism would be misguided here. I look at the representation of the protagonist of “Statue” with a distant and uncanny wonder in the play of familiar and unfamiliar, whereas with Olsen I can say there’s my mother if . . ., and with Brooke-Rose simply, I would put it this way if I could.

“Sometimes she can be seen wandering…,” Mahasweta writes and then adds “She can be seen means the python sees her.”[v]  There is no followup to this.  Mahasweta is simply explaining her own language use.  It is as impersonal a sentence as can be.  I invite you to consider the problematic of being the object of an animal’s look as laid out in Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am.[vi]  Derrida describes the tradition of the philosophy that he knows — Western philosophy — as burdened by the autobiographical and the confessional mode of establishing the human being, and therefore generalizing the entire heterogeneous and diversified animal kingdom as non-human.  In this autobiographical and confessional piece, I would like to think that some impulse of placing this woman in a definition outside of the accepted social definition of “human as female ” that makes Mahasweta constitute her as the object of the gaze of a named animal, merely as an explanation of how not to read her own sentence colloquially, rather than as a description of the person outside of the definition.  A signal of the undecidable place outside of the double bind — we cannot “understand” the python’s gaze.  Is it significant that the name of the python in Bengali ajagar is the name universally associated with learning the first letter of the alphabet: aey ajagar ashchhe terhey?

This woman is thus because she has been banished outside of the reproduction of the family.  Remember, in the previous section, we had seen old women who had placed themselves there or failed to do so as honorary males or patriarchally defined, with fear, as Baubos.

Let me give you a quick summary of the story so that I can get on with my argument:

She is the daughter of a rural priest attached to a wealthy non-Brahmin family.  The groom runs off on her wedding night.  She is therefore technically a child widow.  The Master’s son falls in love with her.  Because this marriage is impossible, another marriage is arranged for him.  She herself is within this ideology, obviously without what Tema Kaplan had defined in the 80s as “female consciousness,” perhaps because it was a generalization of a specific situation?  This one is specific too of course, and we must attend to detail.  She watches the wedding from afar.  He catches her eye, and runs away, joining a “terrorist” (by which is meant armed struggle against British imperialism — the story is set in the 20s of the last century) group, and inexpertly attempts to shoot a white man, and is hanged.  Dulali is banished outside of the village, to live like an animal — “a poor bare forked animal,” the Shakespearean description of mad Lear, which, with its adjective “forked” miraculously matches a woman more than a man.  A researcher looks at papers relating to the “terrorist” movement after Independence and finds letters, never sent, to this woman.  The world of the humans intervenes.  She is threatened to keep quiet.  Of course she does, she would, she couldn’t have done otherwise and so on.

A statue is built to her long-lost suitor.

Mahasweta is taking us here into a thematic rather larger than women’s access to the public sphere.  Third person narrative without too much free indirect discourse can provide a quick fix in not putting de cart before dehors.  It does not last long — it is a rhetorical ruse.  But she buys a little timeout by that sentence about the python’s gaze in the three-page description of the woman as forked animal.  Without entering Dulali’s consciousness, she makes visible a critique of nationalism to the Bengali reading public within a critique of reproductive heteronormativity where Dulali is a figure.  Let us remember this word “figure.”  Configuration is our weapon in protecting the fragility of reason, compromised by the requirements of the alibi of “rational choice” running capitalism.  We will see that, almost in a parodic reversal of Brooke-Rose’s text, she gives us a glimpse of the old woman’s consciousness – de cart — at the end of a story.  She can just about manage to do this by not aspiring to inhabit the an other space defined as the liminal space of a textual double bind through the trace of the author.

Reproductive heteronormativity is a simple notion: the normal thing for not just human beings but animal beings is for the male and female to copulate, to reproduce, and thus to continue life on Earth. Therefore, this is normal.  It is upstream from sexual preference.  We are in a double bind with reproductive heteronormativity.  Historically both the normative coming of age, the young uprooting the old, especially young men – and of course gender struggle – that is a more recent thing – , feminism, queer resistance, are all in a double bind with reproductive heteronormativity.   Sexual division of labor ceaselessly tries to manage this double bind so that decisions can be made, life go on.

If we love our mothers, or if we love our children, or if we, queer ourselves, have decided to have a child, we are in a positive relationship with the originary. Yet we cannot of course be in a completely positive relationship, in many. Reproductive heteronormativity upstream from gender struggle different ways, not just in the usual and recognized struggles.

I repeatedly say that reproductive heteronormativity is the broadest and oldest institution for validation. It goes from the affective – one thinks of it as private – to all the way public, so that you win legislation on that model if you happen to be queer or decide not to legalize. But the legalizing of heteronormativity is neither here nor there.  This law – I will not call it natural — is bigger than positive law. We are talking here about being in a double bind because we think that this is natural law, not positive law. It is upstream from imperialism, because both colonizer and colonized are within it. It’s upstream from capitalism, because both capitalist and worker or subaltern, are within it. It is the oldest tacit globalizer before the globe could be thought. We cannot undo it – though these are good gestures — by deciding to keep our father’s name or a fictive name. We cannot undo it by deciding to legalize it through political law of various kinds. We can be in a double bind with it, but when we are deciding, we do not congratulate ourselves.

In Glas, where Derrida mourns his father (elsewhere I have discussed the difference between this and the text where he attempts to mourn his mother), he argues that Hegel suppresses a double bind about the family.

The family is marked twice. It is a determinate, a most narrowly particular moment. Its place is inscribed in the encyclopedia and in history and the history of spirit. A finite moment. One never passes through it more than once. But [this is the double bind that Hegel does not acknowledge, according to Derrida] simultaneously, another account of the family must be taken on another register, another chapter. This determinate moment of the family, this finiteness, figures (for now I leave a very large opening for this word), . . .

I remind you of my reminder a bit ago:  Mahasweta’s Dulali is a figure working a critique.  For Derrida, in Hegel, the family is working figuratively in order to suppress a double bind: “For now, this determinate moment of the family, this finiteness, figures,” and Derrida’s parenthesis, “(for now I leave a very large opening for this word) figures the system’s totality. A certain familial schema, a certain family,”and in the French, of course, he uses the word, a certain family, “schème,” which also if you take the “s” away, it’s also the last supper. Right? C-e-m-e. I don’t know if there is a corresponding word since you’re a Romance language also, it’s the last supper. So the Holy Family, in other words. So, “A certain family scene suits the system’s infinite totality. The system’s infinite totality thinks, produces, and inflicts itself in that scene.”

Here is the finite determinate moment of the Hegelian family:

After losing itself in nature and in its other, the spirit constitutes itself as an absolute spirit through the negative process of a syllogism [which, we all know, is a simple model of the dialectic, a negation must come in] whose three moments are subjective spirit, (which is anthropology, phenomenology of spirit, and psychology), objective spirit (rights, morality, Sittlichkeit), [Sittlichkeit is untranslated] and absolute spirit (art, religion, philosophy). Each of the three moments itself includes three syllogistic moments.

So, the family is the first moment of the third moment of objective spirit, Sittlichkeit’s first moment. Sittlichkeit is the third moment. Family forms its most natural instance and accomplishes itself by destroying itself, in Hegel it must, in three stages. Marriage, patrimony, education. For men. Some talk of women comes in, but the argument is about men. Derrida in Glas tries to put on the right hand side a male homosexual.

When one rashly says that the finite family furnishes a metaphoric model or a convenient figuration about the language of philosophical exposition, a pedagogical ease, a good way to speak of abstract things to the student while playing with the familiarity of family signification.

Because the student knows about family, everyone knows about family, so use it to explain something, right? “Even then what the absolute familiarity of the signification is must be known.” There’s your RHN, why is it that everybody knows it? What is the absolute familiarity of something?:

If that can be thought and named without the family then one needs to ascertain that the finite family in question is not infinite already in which case what the alleged metaphor would come to figure would be already in the metaphor.

This is how the double bind is launched. For Tillie Olsen the double bind was, for the old woman, between grandmothering and mothering your own, and affecting and working for the collective other (autrui), when you are not an honorary male; for Brooke-Rose, between minding matter and body as matter as old woman, when you are in the critical margin of honorary maleship: a literary academic.  A taxonomy.

Mahasweta’s old woman is left to forage in youth and now has the wisdom of the animal.  In post-reproductive old age, she is no “goddess as old crone,” as imagined by Clement of Alexandria, or Nietzsche’s Baubo, figuring truth.

She too is liminal, materially.  She

earns her keep. Even at seventy-eight years of age she binds kindling in creepers, drags it and puts it at the other edge of the yard.  [The women of the family] give [her] some rice-salt-oil-lentil at month’s end, two saris yearly….  If one feels like feeding, why give such a small amount of rice?  These are most complicated questions.  She often weaves a net in her mind with the questions, is herself caught in the net and gives up.  With a belly always empty or three-quarters empty, there is nothing left in her body.  She likes the fire’s warmth and for lack of blood feels chilled all the time.  She sits by the fire even in Boishakh and Joishtho, the high summer months.  [Discuss translation problems here — anch tant]  The word “warmth” [tant] blossoms and falls like a distressed flower….  Sometimes it is seen that’s, in the hot month of Choitra, just as dusk falls, far from the village, plucking ripe branches of lentils at speed from someone else’s field.  There is but one reason, to solve the food problem.  She looks most unearthly then.  Thin frame, the hot winds in her white hair, a rapt look in her eyes….  Perhaps she is thinking of that [lifelong injustice her nephew] thinks.  In fact she doesn’t think of the past.  She, too, believes in the present, as does [her nephew]….  In her dream she wears a whole cloth and eats a full serving of rice in a bell metal plate, everyday, only rice, no lentils, no vegetables, only rice.

I have argued elsewhere that, wishing to access what we imagine should be the impersonal subject of ethical behavior understood in the hetero sense, we choose an abstract average subject, and fall into the seduction of statistics.  Her nephew, named Nabin or “the new”, is in the seduction of statistics.  He feels for the old woman and takes her in the dark to see the statue once it is established.  She is allowed a moment of dry wisdom clear of reproductive heteronormativity when she perceives the statue as a statue, not the representation of a lost object as beloved, and says: “the flowers at his feet are already wilted, Nabin.  Crows will shit on his head, dirt will cover him, haven’t you seen the distress of the god at Monosha’s open shrine all year-round?”

There is powerful irony here.  In her innocent consciousness, the old woman conveys an equation of the man with the idol.  The merely good human man is somewhere else: “yet for the sake of a statue a great [statistical, a lot of good could have been done with the money] can descend on the Nabin’s of this world.”  She is elsewhere.

In the second story in the collection “The Fairy Tale of Mohanpur,” Mahasweta moves down in class to represent a subaltern old woman.  In this story, the young male postcolonial activist is shown at work calling on the state to insert the subaltern into the circuit of citizenship.  The subaltern herself is only imperfectly aware of the efforts, accepting the frailties of old age, in her case the loss of eyesight especially, as she accepts the changing world.  In the end the activist succeeds in bringing her to the hospital, in extremis.  What we are shown at the end is the simple joy in material comfort, again, when the subaltern is unexpectedly rewarded with the blessings of citizenship.  This is a warning to all benevolent feudality, including that of the world social forum, which sees in the subaltern’s smile evidence of a self-conscious support for critical activism that  is perceived by  the subaltern subject  it must also be strictly distinguished from the representation called the rural Brahmin girl as the old woman in the wisdom that has touched bare life:

Andi’s eyes are heavy with sleep.  She thinks nothing about the fate of her eyes.  She has been admitted to hospital.  She will eat all kinds of things at the hospital, the doctor will come again from that district town, ‘everything jes like a fairy tale one by one!’  She mutters, amazed, and her face, in sleep within the depths of this fairytale ravine, looks most fulfilled.

To conclude this autobiographical and confessional piece, I move to my own standing as honorary male, receiving gifts from what was, in my time of studentship, the male-identified academy from my good teachers, even as I’d received the patriarchal Constitution that has marked me and all women of my generation permanently. in onset to a question at the radical philosophy meeting, I was able to acknowledge one of the gifts that I have received from my subaltern educational activism: The instrumentalization of “love” as one of the historically specific ways to reproduction within an originary queerness.  Now I outline my own itinerary as far as I can on the high road.

As some of you know, Paul De man was my teacher.  In a piece published in boundary 2, I have suggested that in Allegories of Reading, de Man gives us a confessional moment when he describes in his a-historical approach generationally, pointing towards another way of reading.  I follow de Man to displace his history-bound mistake into another use of Schiller following Kant.  I track that trajectory as the methodological red thread through a book of essays.

Thought as an instrument of abstraction, gender is in fact a position without identity (an insight coming to us via Queer Studies from David Halperin), sexualized in cultural practice.[vii]  We can therefore never think the abstracting instrumentality of gender fully.  With this brief introduction I will go to the conclusion of de Man’s “Kant and Schiller” and myself conclude this Preface.

De Man did not meddle with gender.  Yet he singles out a passage in Schiller that en-genders the aesthetic and leaves it deadpan.  Allow me a longish quotation:

Hypotyposis for Kant is . . . a very difficult problem that again threatens philosophical discourse; whereas here [in “On the Necessary Borderlines in the Use of Beautiful Forms”] it is offered by Schiller as a solution.  . . . The sensory . . . becomes a metaphor for reason.  This extends to humanity, which, it turns out, is not entirely a principle of closure, because humanity is not single – but it has a polarity, it has the polarity of male and female that inhabits it, and this is how Schiller copes with that problem.  “The other sex,” he says, the female sex, “can and should not share scientific knowledge with man, but by ways of its figural representation, it can share the truth with him.  Men tend to sacrifice form to content.  But woman cannot tolerate a neglected form, not even in the presence of the richest content.  And the entire internal configuration of her being entitles her to make this stern demand.  It is true, however, that in this function, she can only acquire the material of truth, and not truth itself.   Therefore, the task which Nature disallows women, the other sex, this task must be doubly undertaken by man if he wishes to be the equal of woman in this important aspect, in this important aspect of his existence.  He will therefore transpose as much as possible out of the realm of the abstract, in which he governs and is master, into the realm of the imagination and of sensibility.  Taste includes or hides the natural intellectual difference between the two sexes.  It nourishes and embellishes the feminine mind with the products of the masculine mind, and allows the beautiful sex to feel what it has not thought, and to enjoy what it has not produced by its labor” (Werke, 21:16-17).  That much for women.  Schiller’s humanism is showing some of its limits here.  At any rate, the theoretical conclusion of this passage would be that just as the sensory becomes without tension a metaphor for reason, in Schiller, women become without oppression a metaphor for man.   Because the relation of woman to man is that of the metaphor to what it indicates, or that of the sensory representation to reason

In the same way, Schiller’s considerations on education lead to a concept of art as the metaphor, as the popularization of philosophy. Philosophy, as you saw, is the domain of men, art is – basically, the beautiful is – the domain of women. The relationship is that of metaphor. [viii]

I have no interest in rescuing either Schiller or de Man into good gender politics, whatever that might be. It is not a secret that “feminization” is a putdown. Yet, by itself “feminization” cannot necessarily be a putdown. And the aesthetic, for Schiller is a powerful thing, fit for princes, which can save the world from itself. It cannot be denied that these peculiar deployments of woman is the moment of transgression which beckons to be undone and I hope to do so.

Suppose we attempt to reverse and displace the ancient binary until “woman” is a position without identity. I say “attempt” because the force of the effort is the force of reading and thinking, since interest determined by sexual difference cannot disappear.  Keeping this in mind, I recall our efforts in the early days of academic feminism we used to distinguish between male tasks and domestic (female and servant) tasks, as follows: one-time only and repeated because forever necessary. Something you can footnote as opposed to cooking and cleaning, let us say. Schiller’s woman is upper class at first glance. If, however, you look closely at the passage de Man quotes, you will see that the distinction between access to truth and access to figuration is a displacement of the distinction between one-time and repetition that we discussed as historically assigned to male and classed female. It is in this sense that one can add the concept-metaphor of female to Baubo — the tasker as old woman rather than Schiller’s gentlewoman — to think the place of the aesthetic as useful to shore up a world gone awry by rational choice and the extreme abstract rationality of the electronic, where imagination itself is empiricized into reasonable programming, even as the imagination as event inevitably escapes.

I end these remarks with an impossible “female” task – in Schiller’s sense and mine.

Many many years ago, I used to distinguish between male tasks and domestic (female and servant) tasks, as follows: one-time only and repeated because forever necessary. Something you can footnote as opposed to cooking and cleaning. Let me end with the invocation of such a task as I conclude my walk as an honorary male. The conclusion of Jacques Derrida’s Voyous, not a thankless task, but a gendered task, a necessary repetition of difference, where gender is a position without identity, Schiller’s injunction to feminize the aesthetic, the last best gift to me, a woman, his first Ph.D., bequeathed against the grain by my disgraced teacher, Paul de Man.

Here is the double bind.  “To be responsible, . . . would be to invent maxims of transaction for deciding between two just as rational and universal but contradictory exigencies of reason as well as enlightenment.”

And here is the task: “It remains to be known, so as to save the honor of reason, how to translate.  For example, the word reasonable.  And how to pay one’s respects to, how to . . .greet . . . beyond its latinity, and in more than one language, the fragile difference between the rational and the reasonable.”[ix]  The task of the translator transforms with the task, and announces other fragile differences, such as that between queer and singular, for example.  We can all think of others.

The other side of the violence in the Nietzschean imagining of the post-reproductive old woman as Baubo is the Cumaean Sybill, whose utterance — I want to die, because she grew old and wise without death because, when young and foolish, she had asked only for immortality — appropriately quoted in the original Greek, as reported by wise men, was the epigraph to TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” My generation of postcolonialists graduated into globality, attempts to instrumentalize the Cumaean Sybill, on the way to subalternity, for there too reasonable and rational hang out as a difference.  I hope some of you will walk with us there.



Note to readers: In addition to the text on Spurs written in 1980, Displacement and the Discourse of Woman, I will also refer to two ways of reading Nietzsche which Derrida speaks of in the the Grammatology. I will refer also to something Derrida proposed in “Otobiographies: The Ear of the Other,” and the bottom part of Geoffrey Bennington’s Jacques Derrida, which is called “Circumfessions.” I discuss the latter in a text also published several years ago, Three Women’s Texts and Circumfession. Derrida distinguishes différance from Nietzsche’s prioritization of the metaphor in “Wahrheit und Lüge,” in “White Mythology,” which I thought I would mention.


[i] Christine Brooke-Rose, Life, End of (Manchester: Carcanet, 2006), p.8; hereafter cited in text as B-R, with page numbers following.  And

[ii] Cited in Derrida, Spurs, tr. Barbara Harlow (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979), p.57; translation modified.

[iii] [citation coming]

[iv]  Tillie Olsen, “Tell Me A Riddln,” in Tell Me A Riddle (New York: Dell, 1994); hereafter cited in text as TO, with page numbers following.

[v] Mahasweta Devi, Old Women (Calcutta: Seagull, 1999), p. 15; hereafter cited in text as MD, followed by page number.

[vi] Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, tr. David Wills.

[vii] David Halperin.

[viii]   Paul de Man,  Aesthetic Ideology (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota press, 1996), p. 154.   A good example of Schiller’s usual remarks on women is to be found on AE 213 and passim.

[ix] p. 156, 159.

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