Nicola Lauré al-Samarai
|These conversations are meant to open up spaces for thought between the authors and the ways they relate to the reference text. The editors pose a number of questions, which the authors may address or reject. It is up to the authors to answer, not to answer, or to introduce their own topics.
Conversations Dagmar Fink / Tom Holert
How did you arrive at the form of your texts? I mean in terms of formal decisions: writing style, text structure, the choice of Beauvoir quotes, the role of other materials, such as a photo, a blog, a poster, a song, or another book, and the way you incorporated them into your text.
Tom Holert /
As simple as it sounds, I owe my formal decisions to the form or, more precisely, to the format. The idea of Conzepte, to write a relatively short text on a cultural artefact that is nearly impossible to tackle within such a framework—in this case, Simone de Beauvoir’s book, a work that is encyclopedic and monumental in spite of being written in just a few months (eleven, I believe)—prompted me to write in an elliptic, erratic and fragmentary fashion. It was difficult for me to develop a stringent argument for / against / with Le deuxième sexe. Above all, I didn’t want this unease—due to a lack of knowledge (I had never previously engaged to a great extent with Le deuxième sexe) and my not insignificant gendered position as a reader—to result in my simply re-mixing the many prominent objections to the book. So I didn’t mention its eurocentrism, male-centeredness, thinly veiled universalism, and “humanistic” tendencies.
Aside from that, at first I was simply impressed by the text, despite its considerable weaknesses, impressed by the confident and generous manner in which Beauvoir provides a wealth of sources, by which she lets herself be led astray from her line of argument, time and again, in the most beautiful way, as these materials cannot be easily integrated into her narrative. Today, the intertextuality implied in the book must be taken further and understood as intermediality, which is almost self-evident in a text project like Conzepte that is published on different media platforms. This is also why I mention—even if only as examples—a blog, a conference, a poster, a fanzine, a photo.
Dagmar Fink /
In my text, I wanted to explore a specific issue. I was—and still am—interested in tracing the roots of the rejection of femininity that runs through most of feminist theory. As I recall it, this began (at least as far as the second women’s movement and the theories that followed are concerned) with Beauvoir. This far-reaching issue called for meticulousness and precision in working with the source text. I allowed myself to be guided by this central question and didn’t even consider the newspaper format at first. That’s why my text started out being much too long, too cumbersome, and too academic for a newspaper. I realized that I needed to focus on the argument that was most important to me and forget about all the explaining and exemplifying.
I read many of the early feminist texts during my studies, as a student who absolutely did not want to be taken in by patriarchal ideologies and who was thus also a little suspicious of anything that had to do with femininity. Did my skeptical stance at the time lead me to read a rejection of femininity into the texts? Or do I still read them the same way today? Is that really what’s in these texts? These are the questions that I wanted the text to reflect, which is why I organized it as a first reading and a re-reading.
I had chosen the chapter on the myth of the woman from Le deuxième sexe for a seminar in the gender studies master’s program in Graz. I included the introduction, because it almost sounds like a manifesto and already raises all of the main questions. I also included the chapter on lesbians, or rather on “the lesbian,” because I figured Beauvoir had one or two things to say about femininity there as well. I was curious because she herself seemed to barely broach the issue of her own sexual relationships with women even though it was common knowledge that it was not Sartre’s qualities as a lover that she appreciated him for. Even in feminist receptions, Beauvoir is most often linked to Sartre rather than to her lovers or significant others, even though she maintained a relationship with Sylvie Le Bon for twenty years and later adopted her (as a way of dealing with inheritance issues, as there was no other option for lesbian couples at the time). Why is this relationship never or only rarely discussed? And how did Beauvoir contribute to her own heterosexualization in her work?
I chose the quotes so that they could stand for themselves, and form something like their own short text or line of argumentation. This is why they are fairly short and fragmented. I think it works well, but it’s a pity that the full effect of Beauvoir’s wonderful language is hardly conveyed. So I was all the more pleased that Tom used a longer quote that beautifully showcases Beauvoir’s writing.
It was also a great pleasure for me to introduce Nina Hagen into the text, because she—like Beauvoir—also sharply criticizes (hetero)normative conceptions of femininity and the naturalization of the role of women. But she is different from Beauvoir in that she’s able to imagine other kinds of femininities as normative, which she brings to life in her glorious performances. Beyond that, I think feminist knowledge is never gained solely through engaging with theory, but also through pop cultures—like music, murder mysteries, science fiction, fanzines, and blogs. Specific knowledge can be generated in each and every area—and creating such connections is extremely interesting to me. Pop cultures are certainly capable of disseminating feminist knowledge in a different way again. This immediately makes me think of Le Tigre and their song Hot Topic, which is a sort of snapshot of a queer-feminist project. Whenever I play that song in a seminar, everyone is really curious to know who they’re singing about.
Tom Holert /
An awareness of this scattering of feminist knowledge over different cultures and contexts strikes me as crucial if one is to understand the importance of the form(s) such knowledge takes. By reading Beauvoir, I realized once again that the heterogeneity, the heterodoxy, and the richness of vocabulary and repertoire of feminist modes of expression are also reasons for their theoretical and artistic productivity and unpredictability. In many respects, Le deuxième sexe is an extremely polyphonic, polymorphous affair, Beauvoir shifts between different language games and literary genres, from the jargon of existentialist philosophy, to the literary sources she excerpts and paraphrases, to working with texts from sexology and anthropology. The book is at least an interdisciplinary, if not transdisciplinary, endeavor and its style and focus are influenced, in particular, by the fact that the author dared approach a topic that is both of universal concern and of autobiographical significance. At the same time, Beauvoir took the license and the liberty to develop her philosophical and theoretical work outside the existing authority and order of the disciplines. The numerous and often lengthy quotes—although often proto- or perhaps even anti-feminist—allow for other voices and cultural markers to be incorporated throughout her course of argument. I would go so far as to say that the encyclopedic or Babylonian elements of this approach can be found in lists and itemizations, such as Le Tigre’s Hot Topic (interestingly, the lyrics do not include Beauvoir’s name) or Sabina Baumann’s poster, which seek to reconstruct and depict the spectrum of feminist lines of tradition.
Did you like Beauvoir’s text?
Tom Holert /
Oh yes, I like the text, because it has a flow and, as Dagmar so beautifully put it, there is an exceptional clarity to it. Also, there are so many micro-observations, which are not necessarily compounded into a larger conclusive argument, but stand for themselves, as miniatures. Like, for example, the idea of “housewife values,” which are established in conversations among women, and through which a pleasurable and non-masculine community can be formed. Moreover, I find the book’s discursive location extremely interesting, also and particularly as a contribution to the cultural sciences (Kulturwissenschaften)—as a precursor to (feminist-inspired) cultural studies, similar to Roland Barthes’s (later) Mythologies or Marie Bonaparte’s (earlier) studies based on psycho- and discourse analysis concerning the role of war and myths of war in everyday life, not to mention the impact of Lévi-Strauss on Le deuxième sexe.
Dagmar Fink /
I greatly enjoyed Beauvoir’s text and her efforts to combine literary-poetic language and theoretical language. This is something I also appreciate in the work of theorists like Donna Haraway and Trinh Minh-ha. Language that endeavors to use figuration not only gives me great pleasure, it also enables a different way of understanding. One that not only touches the mind, but also the senses and emotions. It calls for a different mode of description, perhaps more of a circumscription, and sometimes even a kind of writing that approaches without actually touching, instead of fixing and defining. However, the latter applies more to Haraway and Trinh than to Beauvoir.
I really like the fact that long before cultural studies or gender studies emerged, as Tom mentioned, Beauvoir addresses the significance of history, stories, and mythologies for the ways we conceptualize and produce “sex.” While I was doing research on Le deuxième sexe, I read that Beauvoir had apparently been rather “liberal” in her use of sources, which I also found amusing, but it’s really no wonder, considering that she wrote this monumental piece in such a short time.
Dagmar critiques the fact that Beauvoir doesn’t consider the intersections of race / class / ethnicity with femininity; and Tom also notes that there are critiques of Beauvoir’s book in this regard. Could you say a bit more about this?
Tom Holert /
Yes, Le deuxième sexe does have a significant blind spot here. The colonial dimensions of the power relations around sexuality that Dagmar mentioned play virtually no role in the book. Beauvoir’s involvement in the decolonization movement, brought about by the Algerian war, only became visible in the late 1950s, as Sartre and the Les Temps Modernes circle also adopted a clear stance on the issue. In 1962, together with lawyer Gisèle Hamili, Beauvoir published a now largely forgotten book on the case of Djamila Boupacha, who was tortured in Algeria, and set out to prosecute her torturers, the first case of its kind in the history of this colonial conflict. While the explicit link to French colonialism is lacking in Le deuxième sexe in 1949, the class question is brought up repeatedly, particularly in part IV and V of the chapter on “history,” where she addresses the requirements for the politicization of women citizens, peasants, and laborers, but also later on when she deals with the economic and social asymmetries within heterosexual couples. Nonetheless, her argumentation is rarely Marxist in the strict sense. Overall, it is very hard to place Beauvoir’s sociology in a specific school of thought. Nonetheless, the Franco-American context in which her scenario of the relationship between the sexes (and the liberation from “bad” partner relationships) unfolds is alarmingly white. As something that is absent and repressed, however, the colonial dimensions are extremely present.
Dagmar Fink /
The question that arises for me in terms of the interconnections and interactions between various axes of difference is how texts, films, images, etc. are dealt with, how they are perceived and received. What works well, I think, is when authors address these issues from many different perspectives, as in the case of Jennie Livingston’s documentary film Paris is Burning. Judith Butler has written about it with a focus on gender, bell hooks has written about it, critiquing Butler’s reading and addressing race, Viviane Namaste has written about it, critiquing both Butler’s reading and the reading of transwomen, and so on. So many people have examined this film from so many different standpoints. I can watch the film, read the essays, and consider the possible interconnections between the different approaches. The same thing could certainly be done with Le deuxième sexe. In terms of feminist epistemology—which long focused on discussions of the privileges attached to certain epistemological subjects or standpoints—I think there is not just the one privileged standpoint or knowledge, not even when dealing with one specific question. But different standpoints certainly do bring other things into perspective.
You both relate Beauvoir’s text to queer theories and politics that deconstruct binary models of gender. By doing so, it seems to me that you show ways out of the dead end that is created when Beauvoir defines the goal of emancipation as the embodiment of aspects of traditional masculinity. Even in her choice of language—the one or the other, the first / second sex—she remains within a binary, or more significantly, hierarchical logic. Would you agree?
Tom Holert /
It is true that the project of emancipation, or rather of women’s “authentic autonomy” (p. 45), is locked into a binary logic, each triumph in this struggle to obtain liberation can only be measured in relation to man’s autonomy. For Beauvoir, what characterizes the “overall erotic situation” (p. 596) is nothing more than what Monique Wittig analyzed decades later as the “heterosexual contract” or “compulsory heterosexuality,” as Adrienne Rich has called it. On the other hand, the potential for overcoming this very contract—and this is something Judith Butler clearly recognized—lies within the “devenir” of “devenir femme,” which Beauvoir invokes in her critique of the “myth of femininity,” because she envisages a denaturalization and denormalization of gender binarity. Beauvoir develops this however, as Dagmar explains in detail, at the expense of the option (or, better: position) of “femininity.”
The fantasies that are recognized as legitimate or attractive in Le deuxième sexe appear to be limited and exclude desire. The way Beauvoir takes issue with, for example, the “feminine need to be reflected in the eyes of others,” which she indiscriminately and heavy-handedly reduces to “narcissism,” is, in the end, a typically ultra-modernist denial of the theatrical (and thus of the supposedly “secondary”). In doing so, she also discounts, for example, campy celebrations of more or less extravagant performances and their political and aesthetic potential to subvert and resignify role patterns and ideological interpellations. On the other hand, a sentence like “even a transvestite cannot turn herself into a man—she is a transvestite” (p. 724)—perhaps involuntarily?—contradicts the narrative of the impossibility of something beyond the binary order, so in the end, the “female transvestite” is interested not in becoming a “man” but in the drag “counterpublics” as Michael Warner calls them in his wonderful Publics and Counterpublics.
Dagmar Fink /
I wouldn’t say that Beauvoir remains stuck within a binary logic due to her choice of words. In my opinion, it is also possible to read Le deuxième sexe as saying that there is only one gender—and its deviation—in the tradition of western thought. The same could also be said of Irigaray’s The Sex Which Is Not One. Femininity is not conceptualized in a positive manner. It’s extremely important to me to emphasize this. Here, Irigaray goes so far as to speak of an “anti-narcissism,” created especially for women. In contrast, Beauvoir devotes an entire chapter to the female narcissist. She writes, “circumstances invite woman more than man to turn toward self and to dedicate her love to herself.” (p. 667) I do agree that women are urged—if not to say forced—to be concerned with themselves, especially regarding their outward appearance. But I don’t think they are encouraged to love themselves. And how could they be when femininity is viewed only as a deficiency or negation? As a matter of fact, both Beauvoir and Irigaray reiterate a binary order, albeit in very different ways—but not necessarily due to the choice of words.
Tom writes that Beauvoir “envisages a denaturalization and denormalization of gender binarity.” I think she does and she doesn’t. On the one hand, she writes that not all female persons are women, but in other quotes, such as the one below, she reinforces a binary order of the sexes and negates all other gendered forms of existence that were around in 1949: “And the truth is that anyone can clearly see that humanity is split into two categories of individuals with manifestly different clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, movements, interests, and occupations; these differences are perhaps superficial; perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that for the moment they exist in a strikingly obvious way.” (p. 4)
What is so exciting about Beauvoir’s text is that it laid something like a cornerstone for the deconstruction of being-woman, analyzing the patriarchal myth of femininity so brilliantly and incisively and, at the same time, totally failing to recognize anything other than man or woman. And what’s so disappointing about Beauvoir is that she’s incapable of perceiving or imagining any other femininities.
The conversation with Dagmar Fink and Tom Holert on their texts about Simone de Beauvoir’s book Le deuxième sexe (1949, first English edition 1956, new translation 2009/2011) took place via e-mail and has been shortened in the editing process. Sabine Rohlf asked the questions.
Translation from the German by Erika Doucette & Sam Osborn, copyediting by Nicholas Grindell
Roland Barthes, Mythologies, Paris 1957
Roland Barthes, Mythen des Alltags, Frankfurt/M 1964 and 2003, first complete German translation: Mythen des Alltags, Frankfurt/M 2010
Sabina Baumann, Poster, in: Karin Michalski (ed.), FEELING BAD – queer pleasures, art & politics, Berlin 2011, download: http://www.workingonit.de/work...
Simone de Beauvoir, Gisèle Hamili, Djamila Boupacha, Paris 1962
Simone de Beauvoir, She Came to Stay, translated by Yvonne Moyse and Roger Senhouse, Cleveland / Ohio 1954
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, London 2009 and, quoted here, New York 2011
Judith Butler, “Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex”, in: Yale French Studies No 72, 1986, pp. 35-49; http://www.jstor.org/pss/29302...
Judith Butler, “Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion”, in: Bodies That Matter, New York / London 1993, pp. 121-140.
Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature, New York / London 1991
Donna Haraway, Die Neuerfindung der Natur. Primaten, Cyborgs und Frauen, translated by Dagmar Fink, Carmen Hammer, Helga Kelle, Anne Scheidhauer, Immanuel Stieß and Fred Wolf, Frankfurt/M / New York 1995
bell hooks, “Is Paris Burning?”, in: bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation, Boston 1992, pp. 145-156.
Le Tigre, “Hot Topic”, 1999; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...
Viviane Namaste, “‘Tragic Misreadings’: Queer theory’s erasure of transgender subjectivity”, in: Viviane Namaste, Invisible lives: The erasure of transsexual and transgendered people, Chicago 2000, pp. 9-23.
Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”, in: Adrienne Rich, Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1985, New York 1986, pp. 23-75.
Adrienne Rich, “Zwangsheterosexualität und lesbische Existenz” (1980, German edition: 1983/1989), in: Dagmar Schultz (ed.), Macht und Sinnlichkeit. Ausgewählte Texte von Audre Lorde und Adrienne Rich, Berlin 1991, pp. 138-168.
Trinh T. Minh-ha, “Boundary Event”, in: Secession (ed.), Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Vienna 2001, pp. 7-10.
Trinh T. Minh-ha, “Grenzereignis”, in: Secession (ed.), Trinh T. Minh-Ha, translated by Dagmar Fink, Johanna Schaffer and Katja Wiederspahn (gender et alia), Vienna 2001, pp. 11-15.
Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, New York 2002
Monique Wittig, “One Is Not Born a Woman”, in: Feminist Issues Vol 1, Nr 2, 1981, pp. 47-54.
Monique Wittig, “Wir werden nicht als Frauen geboren”, (1981), in: IHRSINN. eine radikalfeministische Lesbenzeitschrift No 27, 2003, pp. 8-19.