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is for this reason that he regards the present hierarchy of sexual difference as
inescapable. It follows that those who are committed to the view that women can
transcend their present predicament must ¬nd a way to avoid sharing Lacan™s
pessimism about the consequences of his own analysis, or reject that analysis
altogether.
More to the point, perhaps, at least from a feminist perspective, even if men
and women were able to achieve such a fresh understanding of human existence,
free of the taint of gender hierarchy, they would thereby become indistinguish-
able in their existence as human subjects, that is, in the only dimension in which
the difference between them has any meaning. It follows that this approach to
the ending of dominance would mean, in much the same way as it does for
Catharine MacKinnon, the elimination of the feminine as a category, and thus
the elimination of sexual difference, for the simple reason that the feminine, as
Lacan insists we now know it, is nothing other than a synonym for subordina-
tion in the form of suppression of identity. The ending of gender oppression as
Lacan sees it would mean the ending of the feminine.
It might well be the case, of course, that following this ending of the fem-
inine some new understanding of sexual difference would arise at some point
in the future, in some form and for some purposes we have yet to imagine.
Nevertheless, sexual difference, as Lacan claims we now know it, would come
to an end, without any guarantee of its legitimate replacement, or indeed any
reason to look for, let alone expect, such a replacement. This response to what
Lacan contends is the nature of women™s predicament, therefore, is one that is
based on the elimination rather than the rehabilitation of the concepts of both
personal identity and gender. It is a form of feminism that would give rise to a
world without women, and to people without identity.

ii. derrida: undecidable identity. Surprisingly perhaps, this is, in sim-
ple terms, the solution to the problem of gender advocated by Jacques Derrida,
who, in the course of deconstructing Lacan™s account of sexual difference in
order to demonstrate its capacity for transformation, seeks to deconstruct the
very concept of identity.26 Derrida believes he can dispel Lacan™s pessimism
about the prospect of dismantling gender hierarchy only by undermining the
status of the concept that, according to Lacan, lies at the heart of that hierarchy,
the concept of identity itself.

26 In the following discussion I have adopted rather than sought to question Cornell™s interpretation
of Derrida™s work. Whether Cornell™s account of Derrida is in fact accurate, and whether a
sounder basis for feminism might be found in a different interpretation of his work, are questions
I do not consider, for it is her work that concerns me, not his. However, it is clear that Cornell
would have to be fundamentally mistaken in her view of Derrida, which I see no reason to
believe, for the latter to be true, because what I take to be the weakness of his account, as she
presents it, lies not in its peripheral features but in its core elements.
86 difference

In Derrida™s picture of existence, the nature and status of the human subject
is fundamentally indeterminate, or as he puts it, undecidable. For Derrida, as for
Lacan, our present concept of personal identity is simply a fantasy, the appar-
ent coherence of which is asserted and maintained only at the price of gender
hierarchy. The truth of human existence is that our lives are constituted as im-
ages in language and culture, so that we exist as metaphors in and through
which meaning is continuously negotiated but never established. We exist,
that is, as locations for an ongoing, indeed never-ending, dialogue between
text and referent, between subject and Other, and it is only in this dialogue
that the nature and meaning of our existence can be looked for. It follows that
human existence can never be ¬nally established or embodied in a concrete
understanding of identity. On the contrary, any appearance of identity that our
lives may present is in the most profound sense merely provisional, being al-
ways already engaged in the process of its own deconstruction, so as to yield
to the truth of undecidability.
In this picture there is not only no room for identity as a human subject, but
neither need nor room for an image of the feminine, because any such image,
on Derrida™s account, is as ¬ctional as the image of identity, and accordingly as
vulnerable to deconstruction. It is for this reason that Derrida invokes in place
of gender what he describes as a new choreography of sexual difference, in
which that difference would be, as he puts it, danced differently, this time to a
polysexual signature. The price for women of this approach is clear, as is the
reason why Cornell, in common with a number of others, seeks to distance her-
self from its consequences.27 In the world that Derrida describes, the existence
of all human beings would become as ¬‚imsy, as empty, as the nonidentity that
Jacques Lacan argues is the fate of women.
It is true that the condition of nonidentity Derrida has in mind is unlike that
which Lacan describes, in that it is not imposed upon one group of people
so as to sustain the identity of others. At one level, therefore, the general re-
alization of the Derridean condition of nonidentity would bring to an end the
existence of gender hierarchy. Nevertheless, the consequence of doing so would
be that no human being would enjoy what we now know as identity, and that
women would cease to exist as women, given that the only dimension in which
sexual difference exists for us, at least according to Lacan™s account, would
be eliminated in the elimination of identity. Furthermore, elimination of sexual


27 It should be emphasized here that while Cornell admits that Derrida himself hesitates, as she
puts it, before any af¬rmation of the feminine, she nevertheless argues that the af¬rmation of
the feminine that she calls for is entirely consistent with his philosophy. Rather than distance
herself from Derrida™s work, therefore, she distances herself from those readings of the work
that see Derrida as seeking to erase sexual difference: see Beyond Accommodation, supra n. 3, at
98, 102, citing Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca, 1985),
86“105; Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London, 1986), 18“23. See also note
37 and accompanying text.
II. The Deconstruction of Gender 87

difference would occur without any prospect of a legitimate replacement, since
Derrida seeks to undermine the establishment and consolidation of any and all
forms of difference, be they matters of identity or of gender.

iii. cornell: feminine possibility. It is important to pause here to ap-
preciate the exact nature of Cornell™s purpose in engaging with the work of
Lacan and Derrida. To do so is to appreciate the signi¬cance to her of the idea
of the feminine as an image of an existence beyond identity as we know it,
one that offers possibilities without imposing constraints. In seeking to extend
and build on the conclusions arrived at by Lacan and Derrida, Cornell seeks
to escape what she sees as the inevitably disabling consequences of any con-
crete, determinate understanding of what it means to be a woman, disabling for
women™s capacity both to transcend their present circumstances and to articu-
late a vision of their future that neither reiterates the terms of their oppression
nor establishes conditions of womanhood that are in themselves exclusionary.
In Cornell™s view, all determinate images of womanhood are inherently oppres-
sive, simply because they are determinate. If drawn from the terms of women™s
present existence as women, such images continue to oppress women and make
escape from oppression conditional on abandoning their gender. If couched in
terms of women™s as yet unrealized existence as women, they make any escape
from oppression an escape into a new form of con¬nement, one de¬ned by the
qualities taken to establish the authenticity of their existence as women.
This is the reason for Cornell™s attraction to Jacques Lacan™s account of
the nature of human existence. In presenting the feminine as a condition of
nonidentity, Lacan describes an oppression whose physical features accurately
re¬‚ect the circumstances of women™s experience as Cornell recognizes and
understands them, without linking that condition of oppression to any determi-
nate image of what it ought to mean to be a woman. Paradoxically, given that
Lacan himself regards the condition he describes as inescapable, Cornell sees
his account of oppression as the only one that offers women any hope of escape
from their present predicament. This is precisely because Lacan con¬rms what
Cornell regards as the truth of women™s exclusion from identity, yet denies that
there is any truth to the identity from which they have been excluded, and by
implication denies that there is any truth to any other determinate image of
existence, such as conventional accounts of the feminine.
Thus it is Cornell™s understanding of oppression as the product of a determi-
nate understanding of existence that leads her to take the image of the feminine
to be a metaphor for nonidentity, in terms both of what she sees as the present
oppression of the feminine, as recorded by Lacan, and of what she sees as the
possibility of escape from that oppression, as envisioned by Derrida as she reads
him. In both its antecedents and its conclusions, therefore, her argument turns
on the understanding of existence as an ultimately undecidable condition, the
consequence of which for human beings is the impossibility of their identity
88 difference

as human subjects, and the indeterminacy of the sexual difference between
them. It is only through a Derridean vision of the future that Cornell believes
it is possible to avoid the problems presented by any determinate account of
the feminine, and it is only through a Lacanian account of gender hierarchy
that this Derridean future can be understood to address the problem of gender
oppression.
Clearly, however, there is a tension involved, if not a contradiction, in any at-
tempt to af¬rm an image of the feminine using an approach to the understanding
of human existence that is apparently committed to the deconstruction of any
and all such images. If Cornell is to succeed in her argument, she must balance
what she sees as the need to provide the feminine with some determinate basis
for calling itself the feminine at all against the need to avoid determining the
content of the feminine, so as to establish it as an image that is itself liable to
deconstruction. Unless Cornell can strike this balance successfully, and resolve
the tensions her account of the feminine generates, it will fall either into the very
establishment of existence that she condemns or into the very absence, which
Lacan describes as the present fate of the feminine, that she seeks to transcend.
If she cannot strike that balance, Lacan™s account of the feminine will indeed
be inescapable, as he maintains, and consequently will have to be rejected by
all those who believe in the possibility of redeeming the position of women as
women.


B. The Ethical Relation to the Other
As Lacan sees it, the problem of discrimination against women in our culture,
or more accurately, of discrimination against the feminine, is the product of
a false understanding of the nature of our existence as human subjects. The
unjusti¬ed authority that we grant to the masculine is the authority we grant
to the subject, and the unjusti¬ed disability that we correspondingly impose
upon the feminine is the disability we impose upon the Other. In our culture,
identity and gender are established in a way that betrays their true meaning;
the description we are given of them is false to the character of their existence.
That description lends an authority to the masculine subject that it strips from
the feminine Other.
Yet if Lacan is correct in believing that our present understanding of identity
and gender is fundamentally false, as Cornell takes him to be, he is correct
on the basis that our existence as images in language and culture is in fact
contingent and vulnerable. If that is the case, the remedy to gender oppression
that Cornell seeks can never be ¬nally expressed in terms of gender difference,
for the truth of that difference, like the truth of existence from which it derives,
is undecidable. It follows that the feminine can never be established as an ideal.
It can be approached only indirectly, through a description of the opposing
impulses that it seeks to contain without ever determining. Those impulses
II. The Deconstruction of Gender 89

are, on the one hand, the impulse toward deconstruction and undecidability,
expressed as a commitment to openness to the Other, and on the other hand,
the impulse toward establishment and decision, expressed as the consolidation
of an image of the feminine as the location within which this openness to the
Other must ¬nd its setting.28 It is the tension between these impulses, which
Cornell describes as the ethical relation, that she seeks to give effect to in her
reaf¬rmed, albeit profoundly disrupted, description of the feminine.
To this end, Cornell addresses the present gender hierarchy by invoking
in its place an image of the feminine that she calls the subject of dialogue, an
image that is binary by de¬nition and undecidable by nature, so that it can never
be grasped as a uni¬ed concept. That being so, her description of the feminine
cannot be examined and evaluated as if it were a uni¬ed concept, but can be
approached only through independent examinations of its component practices,
namely, the deconstruction of the masculine subject and the af¬rmation of the
feminine Other, and the undeniable but undecidable impact that each is said to
have on the understanding of the other.
More important, however, in examining the components of Cornell™s image
of the feminine, it is essential to remember that on her account of existence
each of those components exists only in terms of the other. Neither can be taken
as an end in itself; to do so would be to describe the content of the feminine
in terms of one of its components to the exclusion of the other. The subject of
dialogue must, by reason of its nature as an image, remain undecided between
its components, something it can do only by respecting the contribution of each.
It can be no more legitimate to present our existence entirely in terms of the
recognition of the Other than it is to present our existence, as Cornell believes
we now do, entirely in terms of the denial of the Other.
It follows that what Cornell describes as the writing of recovery of the Other
cannot be based on acknowledgment of the Other alone. Abolition of the status
of the masculine as the exclusive image of the human subject leaves undeter-
mined what forms human existence may take, consistent with recognition of the
Other, and what images may be used to present it: many are incompatible, most
are controversial, and all entail some form of exclusion of the Other. The issue
of sexual difference, therefore, is ultimately one of the proper character of the
relationship to the Other, and by extension a matter of establishing which forms
of symbolic existence, and consequent exclusion, are legitimate and which are
not, and hence which may validly be pursued and which may not.
As long as these conditions are met, any image of the subject, and hence any
form of separation and exclusion of the Other, is legitimate as far as Cornell is

28 Cornell believes that deconstruction embraces both these impulses in what she calls a double
gesture. I do not wish to challenge this description, and discuss the double gesture in some detail
below. For the moment, however, for lack of a better term, I use deconstruction to refer to what
Cornell herself might prefer to call “the phase of overturning”: see Beyond Accommodation,
supra n. 3, at 95“96.
90 difference

concerned. The dialogue between subject and Other is free to take any course,
as long as the role of each participant in it continues to be recognized. Yet the
obligation to recognize and preserve the roles of the participants necessarily
constrains the course of the dialogue in terms of those roles. That is to say, the
condition of dialogue itself limits both the freedom to establish new images
of the subject and the freedom to deconstruct them through recognition of the
Other. In particular, it prevents the dialogue from taking a direction that would
undermine the existence of either of the components on which its own existence
as an image depends.
If the image of the feminine is to serve as a framework for the impulse to
deconstruction and recognition of the Other, to preserve the character of the
subject as a dialogue, that framework cannot itself be subject to deconstruction.
On the contrary, it must resist deconstruction to whatever degree is necessary
to maintain its role in preserving the character of the subject as a dialogue. Any
lesser degree of resistance would permit one component of the subject, namely,
the impulse to recognition of the Other, to stand in for the meaning of the subject
as a whole, and so foreclose any possibility of dialogue. Conversely, of course,
any greater degree of resistance would permit the framework of the feminine to
do the same, by repressing the Other and refusing to engage in dialogue with it.
At one level, Cornell clearly recognizes this,29 offering an account of the
feminine that has two aspects: the ¬rst she calls a philosophy, designed to force
recognition of the Other and its utopian possibilities; the second she calls a
programme, designed to serve as the vehicle within which those possibilities
can be ethically pursued. These aspects of Cornell™s account mirror and respond
to the challenge of feminism as she poses it at the outset of Beyond Accommo-
dation, namely, that any account of the feminine must acknowledge women™s
oppression without endorsing its status as truth, and must offer the opportunity
of a new feminine reality without enclosing women, or any portion of them, in
its description.
Yet at another level important questions remain unanswered by Cornell™s
presentation of the feminine in this form. The ¬rst of these is what ethical stan-
dard she intends to call upon in order to establish the validity of the relationship
between the two components of the subject addressed by her philosophy and
her programme, respectively. That standard cannot merely be, as she some-
times seems to suggest, the compliance of her programme with her philosophy,


29 See The Philosophy of the Limit, supra n. 12, at 100“107. It may be noted here that Cornell™s
Lacanian view of nature of the symbolic order makes her assessment of present social real-
ity super¬cially similar to that of Catharine MacKinnon. Where Cornell parts company with
MacKinnon, however, is in the conclusion that that reality constitutes the truth of the feminine:
see Beyond Accommodation, supra n. 3, at 119“64, and particularly at 129“30. As she puts it,

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