Bernard E. Harcourt | Cutting the seams, unraveling the thread | Concluding Thoughts on Critique 3/13

By Bernard E. Harcourt

Judith Revel’s essay and presentation focus us on one of the most important and contemporary dimensions of Simone de Beauvoir’s work: the relationship between gender and work, which takes on particular significance in the context of rapidly evolving late capitalism and structural transformations to work itself.

Naturally, the question itself brings into relief the relationship between feminism and Marxism, which was a source of great tension at the time, one that Beauvoir herself would address and work through. Could or should the MLF (the movement for women’s liberation) work in tandem with class struggle more broadly: that remains today a key question, though it is reformulated today, more broadly, as: whether social movements, that have an identitarian or intersectional basis, can or should work with labor movements and/or more communitarian, identity-effacing Leftist parties.

The question also brings into relief the question of intersectionality that Judith Revel raised in the second paragraph and part one of her essay, and its relation again to work and late capitalism. Here, the problems become even greater because, in a sense, we are not dealing simply within white bourgeoisie, but in the real world marked by so many other forms of discrimination and inequality.

In her essay and presentation, Judith Revel proposes a very provocative and stimulating thesis, in her own “return” to Beauvoir:

  1. Work or labor today is becoming increasingly “feminized” in the sense that it is becoming much more like the model of domestic labor that characterized women’s work historically: work is becoming more precarious, more interwoven with private life, more invisible, less juridically regulated.

Think here, for instance, of the “Uberization” of work, as replacing the profession of taxi driving: you fit in the work between your private life activities; you use your own car; you are less regulated; you are allowing people and transporting them within your own space; you are paid marginal wages. It is almost a domestic model of transporting the kids to school or the doctor’s office.

Or increasingly the French model of labor, where even as a functionary, you are given limited numbers of hours so that certain work restrictions do not apply to you, so that you are not on a permanent contract and do not acquire rights.

Older models of labor are being transformed today, turning employees into private contractors who have to invoice and fight to get paid an allowance, pocket-money, spending-money.

  1. Inversely, the exploitation of labor, today, is increasingly being modeled on the exploitation of women: the new “extractivism” of capitalism maps most closely on the historical situation of women.

In other words, late capitalism has gravitated toward a form of exploitation that mirrors the longer historical exploitation of women. The problem is not exactly the classic one of extracting surplus value from the worker (this is Judith Revel’s discussion in part III of her essay). It is related more to the way in which feminine reproductive work is consumed without compensation and leaves no marketable traces.

Note that this raises a real complex question about the relation between surplus value and reproductive work, which Judith Revel flags, and which we will need to return to.

It is particularly complex because Beauvoir maintains—and I am inclined to agree—that the exploitation and inequalities of women are unique. By contrast to all other forms of exploitation—colonial, imperialist, industrial—they have endured forever. [See pages in English edition at p. 9; in French edition at pp. 19-20].

So in effect, it would not be possible to say that capitalism mirrors the exploitation of women; but that late capitalist exploitation is morphing onto the model of women’s exploitation.

  1. Therefore, women, who have had to deal with this forever, are in the best position to resist late capitalism and show men how to resist.

Brilliant point, and brilliant provocation: indeed, just as, for Marxists, the proletariat was in the best position to understand exploitation and to resist, here, women are in the best position to identify it and deploy the forms of resistance they have over the centuries.

In this regard, Judith Revel writes that, today, much of that resistance passes through a refusal to accept the notion that reproduction is not production:

“Les femmes ne cessent de produire. La reproduction sociale a été historiquement la condition de possibilité de ce que nous avons appelé pendant deux siècles « production » ; elle se confond aujourd’hui avec la production elle-même, dont le pillage systématique, la spoliation de la valeur, est au cœur du nouvel extractivisme du capital.”

[“Women produce continuously. Social reproduction has historically been the condition of possibility of what we have called ‘production’ for the last two centuries; today it has become production itself, whose systematic pillage, the dispossession of value, is at the core of the new extractivism of capital.”]

To be equally provocative though, I would want to ask Judith Revel: have we really learned how to negotiate reproduction as the condition of possibility of production? And how? I do not want to put the onus on women, but have women made progress in this regard, at least sufficient progress that we would want to model resistance to late capitalism on the struggles between the sexes? And what exactly are those models that we can derive from the gender struggles?

Other ways to pose the question: Who is the “we” who are all becoming “women” in the new late capitalist workforce? Is it a problem of increasing inequality, such that the we are the 99%? But if something like that is plausible, what techniques have we developed that can reverse the trend? These are difficult questions, but I will ask Judith Revel to start there in her response if possible.

The central tension in this conversation, I think, results from Beauvoir’s (correct) characterization of the situation of women as being unique: practically eternal, ongoing forever, and changing only, it seemed at the time, in very few (more bourgeois) contexts. That is has lasted forever is a sign that forms of resistance have as well existed forever. But if it has lasted forever, it is frightening to think that political economic relations would converge on that model of exploitation because that does not bode well for the future. [I would add, as well, that if it is in fact unique, then the master-slave dialectic also cannot really serve as a model since it serves such a multi-purpose function in Hegel and Kojève, etc. It can’t serve in every context, if the contexts are different and some unique].

Despite that, the central task would be to carefully analyze and dissect the ways in which women have been able to make the progress and changes they have over the past few decades especially.


As an aside: I just want to emphasize what Judith Revel is doing with the text here: brilliantly deploying it for our problematics today. Weaponizing the text. In terms of our earlier debates: nothing here is distorting or manipulating the text. It is returning to the text and finding in it a move, an analysis, a concept that can do work today – that can animate our political struggles today.


Second, I would like to add another dimension. I do not want to reify the contrast or opposition between materialist concerns and identitarian or intersectional issues. I do not want to create a cleavage between distribution and recognition. So let me carefully add this second dimension and then see how it relates to the first.

I am speaking, of course, of the whole topic of queering gender – and the line of research that Judith Butler developed, in conversation with Beauvoir, at least in that respect starting with her 1986 essay, “Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex,” which I posted on the Critique 3/13 website here, but that Butler further develops in her 1990 book, Gender Trouble.

As is well known and recognized, Simone de Beauvoir brilliantly disentangled gender (man/woman) from sex (male/female). That is the central theoretical move in The Second Sex. As Judith Butler notes in her essay, the very act of decoupling gender from sex has multiple ramifications and effects of its own, even if these were not intended by Beauvoir:

  • It denaturalizes gender: “all gender is, by definition, unnatural,” as Butler writes [35]
  • It denaturalizes the binary nature of gender, thereby making it possible to imagine multiplicities of gender or a gender continuum: “Not only is gender no longer dictated by anatomy, but anatomy does not seem to pose any necessary limits to the possibilities of gender,” as Butler writes [45]
  • It problematizes the foundationalism and independence of biological sex
  • It makes it possible to question the binary nature of biological sex as well.

In line with Butler, I would like to suggest that Beauvoir’s initial move of disentangling gender from sex can serve as a model for other crystalline moves, many of which have been made. The point is that the initial unsuturing—the cutting of the first seam—unravels, like a thread, and undoes a number of related knots. Some of these include:

  • Undoing the naturalized relation between sex as reproduction and sex as sexuality: the biological sex binary (female/male), that is based on reproductive function, is severed from reproduction only, so that “biological sex” turns into different types of distinctions, reproductive capacity being only one. We can no longer speak of organic differences only through the lens of reproduction.
  • This also severs the link between reproduction and gestation: the act of pregnancy and gestation is no longer necessarily tied to maternity. Surrogate motherhood and other forms of gestational surrogacy replace child-bearing.

When all is said and done, we are left with a much more varied landscape liberated of the constraints of patriarchy, but also heteronormativity, nuclear family-life, traditional families, enforced monogamy, etc. We are in a radically different space:

  • We have a gender spectrum, entirely detached from biological functions.
  • We have a sexuality spectrum, entirely detached from biological reproduction.
  • We have a reproductive spectrum, entirely detached from anatomy.

What used to be a single defined point in space [the single model of the heterosexual, married couple, parenting a nuclear family] has exploded, like the Big Bang, into a three dimensional space involving any combination of gender, sexuality, and reproduction. There are no constraints as to how the dimensions relate. No restrictions on fluidity and movement within the space.

The earlier patriarchal model of heterosexual monogamous parenting is just one point in that huge three-dimensional space.

It has, of course, been contested through the ages, with children born out of wedlock, single-parents, non-parenting individuals and couples, adoption, same-sex couples, celibacy, etc. This is not new. In fact, it was probably always and at all times a minority position. Given the historical and historically changing rates of celibacy, of divorce, of parenting, of infidelity, etc., the patriarchal monogamous heterosexual non-divorced faithful parenting model has always been a minority. But it has mostly be normed as the only legitimate point in that space.

But, like the Big Bang perhaps, once the initial seam is cut, the space gets bigger and bigger, so that, other equally valid points in that space become legitimate. So that today, individuals who were not the same sex as they were assigned at birth and who may be in relations with others of the same or different self-identified sex can parent without child-bearing through adoption and surrogacy in ways that would confuse someone in 1948.

And in fact, just like the Big Bang, the rate at which this space is expanding, I think, is also increasing. So that Beauvoir, in 1948, could cut the first seam, and Butler, in 1986-90, might cut the next, but we have seen, particularly with the queering of gender and trans* justice more and more expansion of this space.

None of this is easy, though. It comes at an exceedingly high price—in terms of discrimination, violence often, financial costs, moral opprobrium, etc. It is often limited to urban elites—and does not characterize the life of most women in the world. Some will say that it is, in that sense, fanciful.

And it is surely attacked. It is viewed as dangerous, extremely threatening to the moral fabric of society to many, especially more conservative thinkers. As Butler writes, “If motherhood becomes a choice, then what else is possible? This kind of questioning often engenders vertigo and terror over the possibility of losing social sanctions, of leaving a solid social station and place. That this terror is so well known gives perhaps the most credence to the notion that gender identity rests on the unstable bedrock of human invention.” [42] Notice the idea of knowledge as a human invention—a theme that Foucault, and before him, Nietzsche “returned” to over and over again.

So, nothing in what I say should suggest that any of this is easy. It is not. It is violently resisted. It is fraught. Particularly today, with the Counterrevolution that surrounds us. More than ever, it is resisted.

But what I want to emphasize here—as a matter of our “critical reading method”—is that it was made possible, as a model, as a possibility, as something that is realized by a few, thanks to Beauvoir’s initial seam cutting exercise. That initial move is what unravels the rest. And that alone confronts and challenges, and perturbs the status quo. It was made possible, in part, by Beauvoir’s initial seam cutting. But also, by all the courageous actors, practitioners, who challenged the frontiers, people of all genders, from Joan of Arc to Oscar Wilde to Grace Jones or Lady Gaga. It is impossible to imagine Beauvoir’s seam cutting absent the long history of gender and sexuality deviance.


Another aside, again to method. Notice how Butler often writes:

  • “Simone de Beauvoir herself does not follow through with the consequences of this view of the body” [46]
  • “in ways which Simone de Beauvoir probably did not imagine” [47]

These are precisely the words of a critical method of reading: pushing the text to places which were not yet imagined, in a way to address problems we face today.


To get back, though, to suturing the first and second point—material distributions and cultural recognition. For all the well-known and well-trod reasons, this is not a dichotomy, of course. They feed into each other, and the forms of discrimination from one leak into the other, and vice versa. We know all that. But still, how do we connect, here, the conversation between changing forms of work and exploitation in contemporary late capitalism and the expanding universe of gender and sexuality? How do we connect these two crucial interventions?

I do not have a full blown answer. This is more a work-in-progress. But one has to believe that the extraordinary forms of resistance necessary to unravel the so-powerful constraints of morality and civilization that have enshrined the norms of patriarchy and heteronormativity—that those forms of resistance should be able to teach us something about how to resist capitalist forms of exploitation.

In other words, if same-sex marriage is possible—across a swath of countries—whatever made it possible may also serve as a model may serve as a means to resist capitalist forms of exploitation (unless it is, possibly, a form of cooptation).

How does this differ from what Judith Revel is suggesting? Does it?

I will ask Judith Revel. I am not sure. But, I would venture to say, it may be the difference between the more narrow struggle between the sexes that Beauvoir was focusing on in her 1948 book and the broader queering of gender and sexuality that would emerge later.

This is, I think, the crux of the matter. Let’s explore this in this seminar.


In one of my favorite art works, the artist Mia Ruyter invited guests to a salon at the Pall Mall gallery in Chicago to take seam-rippers and carefully disassemble a wedding dress that she had found at the Salvation Army. The project turned out to be much harder than expected, because the seams were sown so tightly and professionally—as on most wedding dresses. But the seam-cutting worked, and eventually the wedding dress was disassembled. The collective act of unsowing, I would like to think, can help unravel the other oppressive threads of gender and sexuality, and more broadly, the new forms of exploitation.

Mia Ruyter, Pall Mall Salon, Chicago, February 19, 2010