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id. at 116: “Catharine MacKinnon™s task is best understood to give us a relentless genealogy of
our current conceptions of justice so that we will ¬nally see the masculine bias that undermines
the claims of our legal system. As important as this genealogy is for feminism, it is not enough.”
III. The Renewal of Gender 91

because the role of the latter is to resist and balance the former, which it cannot
do through compliance with it. The second and consequent question is to what
extent the stability offered to the subject by Cornell™s programme is achieved by
determining the content of the image of the feminine. To the extent that her pro-
gramme does this it necessarily defeats her attempt to describe an indeterminate
account of the feminine.


III. The Renewal of Gender

A. Deconstruction of the Masculine Subject
In the ¬rst aspect of her account, that of deconstruction, Cornell argues that we
must revise our understanding of human identity so as to acknowledge the pres-
ence of the Other and give effect to the full implications of our interdependence
with it. This means that we must deconstruct the story of sexual difference as
it is given to us, expose the false status of the masculine subject, and reveal the
fundamentally undecidable character of our existence as images in language
and culture. In Cornell™s view it is essential that feminists, as much as the society
whose mythology they seek to disrupt, refrain from any attempt to determine
the content of the feminine, for all attempts to determine existence have the
effect of denying the Other. Only by recognizing the Other, she contends, and
showing existence to be undecidable, can women escape their present disability,
a disability that she believes to be entirely the product of determinate thinking.
It is thus a reimagined and yet undecidable conception of existence that Cornell
seeks to describe through what she calls the philosophy of the limit.30
According to Cornell, any attempt to establish the meaning or content of an
image of existence denies the interdependence of that image and the Other, and
so contravenes the ethical relation, for the simple reason that the establishment
of an image necessarily forecloses its openness to the Other. In the world she
calls for, it will never be possible, consistently with the requirements of the eth-
ical relation, to conceptualize or otherwise determine the content of an image
of existence. As a result, we can never know once and for all what it means to
be a woman, for any content that the image of the feminine may from time to
time appear to have can only be provisional, since it must always already be en-
gaged in the process of its own deconstruction in favour of what the provisional
determination of its content has temporarily rendered Other, an Other to which
it is bound to be completely open by the requirements of the ethical relation.
Any attempt to reconcile an image of existence with the loss implicit in its
Other, therefore, has the effect of establishing what Cornell describes as an

30 “The philosophy of the limit” is the phrase that Cornell uses to describe her conception of
deconstruction as a philosophy that “exposes the quasi-transcendental conditions that establish
any system . . .”: The Philosophy of the Limit, supra n. 12, at 1.
92 difference

imperialistic relationship to the Other in which its status as Other is ultimately
denied. What must be envisioned, she argues, is a dialogic relationship between
subject and Other whose structure and outcome is ultimately undecidable. In
this picture the truth of reality lies not in a determinable subject, nor in its
Other, nor in some concept that could be said to structure the relation between
the two, but in their undecidable relationship. The product and expression of
this relationship is a world without either certainty or closure.


B. Af¬rmation of the Feminine Other
As indicated above, Cornell appears to accept that this account of deconstruction
cannot be taken as a programme for social change in itself, but must be pursued
within the framework of some organizing theme such as the feminine.31 Perhaps
because she readily endorses this conclusion, however, she does not develop an
argument for it at any length. Nevertheless, I believe that it is essential to ¬ll
this gap in the presentation of her argument by exploring in detail the basis of
what she describes as the need for thematization, that is, the need to provide a
framework for the process of deconstruction. The character of this need, and its
relationship to Cornell™s ethic of deconstruction, has a critical bearing on the
success or failure of her project of af¬rming an image of the feminine as the
vehicle for realizing a deconstructed approach to existence. If the feminine is
to be regarded as the embodiment of a fresh understanding of existence, one
that eschews the features of identity as we now know it in favour of a condition
that is fundamentally undecidable, forever engaged in the process of its own
revision, we must understand the meaning of the deconstructive impulse that it
seeks to embody.
In what follows, therefore, I propose to examine the intelligibility of what
Cornell calls the philosophy of the limit, namely, the pursuit of deconstruction
within the framework of a theme such as the feminine. Exactly what contribu-
tion is deconstruction expected to make to the content of feminine difference,
by rendering that difference indeterminate? Conversely, what contribution is the
image of the feminine expected to make to the coherence of deconstruction, by
establishing and so determining the frontiers of its operation? This will involve
examining, ¬rst, the implications of an unquali¬ed commitment to deconstruc-
tion, and second, the impact of the constraints placed on that commitment by a
framework such as the feminine. Through this examination I hope to provide an
answer to the questions left unanswered by the bare description of the feminine
as a subject of dialogue: ¬rst, what ethical standard will be used to establish
the validity of the relationship of the components of this subject of dialogue,
and second, how will use of that standard avoid determining the content of


31 The Philosophy of the Limit, supra n. 12, at 181“82; see also id. at 103ff.
III. The Renewal of Gender 93

the feminine, and so frustrating from the outset the search for an undecidable
account of the feminine?
In brief, I believe Cornell is correct in her conclusion that to be coherent,
deconstruction needs the discipline of a theme such as the feminine. Yet I
further believe that once this need for discipline is admitted, deconstruction
is robbed of its radical and ethical power, so as to make its ethical authority
and transformative capacity entirely derivative of the theme that is called upon
to structure it. In other words, any claim that a deconstructed account of the
feminine may make upon us ¬‚ows from the concept of the feminine that is used
to frame it, or to use Cornell™s term, to thematize it, and not from deconstruction
itself. To paraphrase Luce Irigaray, the problem of sex is a product of the
determination of sex, and it is in that determination that we must look for its
resolution.32

i. rejection of unquali¬ed deconstruction. To begin with the im-
plications of an unquali¬ed commitment to deconstruction: a world without
either certainty or closure, as an unquali¬ed account of deconstruction contem-
plates, is clearly a world that courts chaos, as Cornell herself acknowledges.33
A concept that is fully open to the Other, and in¬nitely permeable, whether a
concept of the feminine or some other, is so insubstantial and unstable as not to
exist at all. From the point of view of Cornell™s project, this is an unacceptable
outcome, as she herself recognizes, not merely because it imports chaos and so
threatens the coherence of the symbolic order and hence any possibility of the
pursuit of the feminine there.34 More tellingly, the elimination of all concepts is
an outcome that is not consistent with an act of acknowledgment of the Other,
for it is only in achieving and establishing concepts that the Other is brought
into being.35 More precisely, chaos of this kind is to be resisted not simply for
the sake of order, but for the sake of the Other.
According to Cornell™s analysis, which in this respect she shares with Lacan,
concepts such as identity and gender can be grasped only through an act of
closure that in the very moment of its de¬nition excludes the Other, and by so
doing brings the Other into existence. Cornell™s reference to the Other, therefore,
and her call for its recognition, is not a reference to some prediscursive reality
that is imperfectly represented in our present account of human existence. On
the contrary, it is a reference to that dimension of reality that is brought into
being only as a result of its exclusion in the embodiment of concepts such

32 Luce Irigaray, “Equal or Different”, in The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford (Oxford,
1991), 32, quoted above in Chapter 2, section IV, at text accompanying note 124.
33 The Philosophy of the Limit, supra n. 12, at 61, 100“104.
34 The existence of a concept of identity, whether seen as inevitable or as desirable, entails the
exclusion of the Other: see section II.B., “The Ethical Relation to the Other”. The argument here
is that respect for the Other further entails preservation of the concept of identity.
35 The Philosophy of the Limit, supra n. 12, at 71“72.
94 difference

as identity, as images in the text of language and culture that Lacan calls the
symbolic order.
It follows that the realm of the conceptual and the realm of the Other are
dependent upon one another for their very existence. Just as the existence of
concepts is contingent upon the existence of the Other, so the existence of the
Other is contingent upon the existence of concepts. Any acknowledgment of the
claims of either realm, therefore, must be undertaken in a manner that safeguards
the existence of the other. For human beings to deny, or otherwise seek to
transcend, this implication of the achievement of their existence as images, is
for them to refuse to acknowledge the Other, and hence to reprise the fantasy
concerning the nature of the human subject that currently de¬nes the masculine
and establishes the pattern of dominance that we know as sexual difference.
Given this interdependence of the existence of a concept and the existence
of the Other, the result of in¬nite openness to the Other would be not only
the elimination of all concepts but the elimination of the Other. Indeed, any
action that threatens the fundamental coherence of the symbolic order, and so
threatens the realization of any concept or image there, is for that reason a threat
to the existence of the Other. It follows that it is not possible to be in¬nitely
open to the Other for the sake of the Other; to do so would in fact be to betray
the Other in the guise of securing its recognition. Paradoxically, some degree
of commitment to structure, suf¬cient to secure the coherence of the symbolic
order and the preservation of images and concepts there, and thus suf¬cient
to exclude the Other and so bring it into existence, is a necessary part of any
commitment to the recognition of the Other.
It might be thought, against this conclusion, that endless openness of a
concept to the Other would produce a transient, continuously evolving under-
standing of that concept, one forever prepared to surrender itself to the forever
shifting claims of the Other. On this account, an unquali¬ed commitment to the
Other might be thought to have a progressive character, something like an unfet-
tered commitment to innovation and change. The effect of such a commitment
would be to dissolve the boundaries of a concept continuously, even as they
are established and reestablished, without being so profound or corrosive as to
prevent the boundaries from ever forming. A commitment to acknowledge an
in¬nite openness to the Other might thus be understood as an endless readiness
to submit to the claims of the Other, rather than as an endless, unrestrained
process of submission to those claims.
In fact, however, any concession of stability that is suf¬cient to de¬ne and
establish a concept, no matter how transiently, is acceded to only at the price of
a corresponding, albeit equally transient, exclusion of the Other. It follows that
an ethic of in¬nite openness to the Other, by invalidating any kind of establish-
ment of the Other™s exclusion, however transient, invalidates any concession of
stability suf¬cient to establish a concept and leads, therefore, not to the constant
evolution of our images of existence but to their total dissolution, and hence to
III. The Renewal of Gender 95

the total dissolution of the Other. The very existence of the Other, in other words,
is a function of the existence of a concept that its full recognition would de-
stroy. Some quali¬cation of the commitment to deconstruction, therefore, which
would permit some limited establishment of the Other™s exclusion, is necessary
if any concept, and hence any existence of the Other, is to be preserved.
A concept cannot hold itself in readiness to surrender to the claims of the
Other if it has no basis upon which to distinguish between those claims, and
hence no basis upon which to resist some portion of them. It can only surrender
to each in turn as they present themselves, however rapidly, however compre-
hensively. In¬nite openness to the Other results, therefore, not in an evolving
understanding of form, but in a state of formlessness, in which a concept and
its Other are returned to the void of in¬nite possibility from which they were
drawn. It follows that an unquali¬ed commitment to deconstruction is literally
incoherent, in the sense that it destroys the coherence that brings both a con-
cept and the Other into being, and thus destroys the coherence on which the
very commitment to deconstruction, or in Cornell™s term, the philosophy of the
limit, depends. Without the establishment of images and concepts there can
be no difference between those images and what they might have been, and
hence no Other to recognize, with the consequence that absolute openness to
difference ultimately betrays the difference that it is committed to honour, and
so ironically becomes, in Cornell™s terms, unethical. More simply, because the
Other exists only through its exclusion, to invalidate that exclusion is simply to
invalidate the Other™s existence.
If Cornell intends to af¬rm an image of the feminine as the vehicle for a
deconstructed approach to existence, therefore, it is clear that she must grant
that image a form substantial enough to shape and constrain the process of
deconstruction, at least provisionally, so as to preserve the existence of the Other.
To the extent that she fails to do so, her account of the feminine is indeterminate
and unknowable, without any basis upon which to sustain the very existence of
an image of the feminine, and hence without any basis that could give rise to an
Other to which that image could be ethically obliged. It follows, as suggested
above, that the ethical obligation to recognize the Other in its full character as
Other can be only one aspect of the rehabilitation of the relationship between
subject and Other that Cornell seeks to rede¬ne through the ethical relation and
to embody in the image of the feminine. That basic obligation to the Other must
be supported and constrained by an independent ethic, one that is capable of
determining which forms of exclusion of the Other are legitimate and which
are not, and hence of determining what constitutes a legitimate relationship
between subject and Other, and by extension, between the sexes.
And yet on Cornell™s understanding of deconstruction neither the content
of an image such as the feminine nor its relationship to the Other can ever be
conceptualized or otherwise determined. Any attempt to do so once again estab-
lishes what she describes as an imperialistic relation to the Other, by reducing the
96 difference

possibilities that the Other represents to those that are a function of the image in
question. More important, any concept or image of the feminine that is to some
degree secured from deconstruction by its role as a theme is thereby made deter-
minate, with all that that entails. It follows that for Cornell, an ethic that seeks to
supplement the practice of deconstruction, albeit in order to sustain the intelli-
gibility of the practice, violates the very commitment that it claims to preserve.
This paradox, in which we are ethically obliged to establish a context of meaning
that we are as ethically obliged to disestablish, she calls, using Derrida™s term,
the double bind.36 She maintains that the paradox can be addressed only through
a practice that Derrida describes as the double gesture, in which meaning is es-
tablished and its status undermined in a single deconstructive movement.

ii. thematization and the double gesture. It is clear that Cornell
recognizes the presence of a dilemma here, though a good deal less clear exactly
how she hopes to resolve it. Three possible resolutions appear to be present in
her work, each of which I outline brie¬‚y before examining in detail. The ¬rst lies
in Cornell™s belief that the process of giving shape to deconstruction through
an independent ethic, the process she calls thematization, is self-governing, in
that it takes place through a double gesture of deconstruction and af¬rmation, in
which each element acts as a check upon the other, so as to prevent an image or
concept from ever becoming either determinate or indeterminate. The second
possible resolution builds on the ¬rst, stipulating that the practice of this double
gesture must ensure that any af¬rmation of a theme such as the feminine is
no more substantial and determinate than necessary to sustain the commitment
to deconstruction itself, by securing the existence of some kind of social order
that deconstruction is intended to serve by continuously trans¬guring. The third
possible resolution quali¬es the second, stipulating that any af¬rmation of a
theme such as the feminine must be suf¬ciently indeterminate, or transparent,
as not to give rise to those consequences of determinacy, namely, rigidity and
exclusion, that Cornell deplores and seeks to escape.
In effect, and as Cornell may intend, these three positions are no more than
variations on a single idea, namely, that the shape that is given to deconstruction
by a setting such as the feminine must itself be deconstructable. Yet to the extent
that the image of the feminine is indeed deconstructable it cannot perform its
function as a theme, and to the extent that it performs its function as a theme it
does so only by insulating itself from deconstruction, thereby determining its
content. The several solutions that Cornell proposes to her dilemma, therefore,
merely reproduce and redescribe rather than resolve it. As a result, her account
of the feminine is ultimately determinate to the extent that it has any content at

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