A sex, and a nation, apart?

Contemporary French Feminism. First edition - Feminism and Masculinities. First edition
May 27, 2005

The essays in Contemporary French Feminism concern “third-wave” feminism. Co-editor Lisa Walsh claims that Julia Kristeva, rejecting a notion of equality that equalises differences, proclaims “a notion of singularity with an emphasis on radical individuality”.

By this reading, the French third wave may transcend both first-wave concentration on universal woman’s place in historical time and the second wave’s overthrow of universalism in favour of “a post-chronological spiritualism”, harnessing second-wave interest in psychoanalysis and aesthetics, albeit to produce possibly “imaginary, utopian ethics”. The book is intended to show English speakers how “nationally contextualised, globally relevant... theories of feminine difference are... deployed in contemporary French philosophy”.

This summary already suggests the book’s principal flaw: opacity. “The caesura separating the ‘similar’ from the ‘non-comparable’ other is inscribed in the wake of an experience of sensorial dehiscence, of inchoate dehiscence opening on to a phenomenon of disjunction” may be an accurate translation of Monique Schneider’s French. The mathematical schemata offered by Alain Badiou and Monique David-Menard may be faithfully reproduced. But are they seriously imagined to be helpful to readers in deciphering their arguments?

We are told: “Her [Claire Nahon’s] research focuses on the notion of trans-sexuality, as opposed to transexuality.” “ Hapax ” and “ parousia ” are offered without adequate comment to readers who cannot be assumed to be educated in classics; “voluntarist” to those feminists without higher education in philosophy. The editors’ patrician disregard for those struggling with specialist vocabulary and concepts means that the essays’ difficulty ranges from moderately high to insuperable. Yet the questions tackled are potentially fascinating, particularly the defence of difference, consideration of the consequences of viewing masculinity as a universal and especially the location of the source of difference between the masculine and feminine as fecundity, and the attack on tokenism in women’s education. One alternative might be a different, singly authored book of this title aiming to explicate its subject; a less radical answer would be to have considerably more detailed and frequent footnotes. Accurate translation is not enough. How credible is the volume’s inclusion within the Oxford Readings in Feminism series when Anglophone feminist readers have to be unusually confident in Lacanian psychoanalysis and French philosophy, editorial comments on essays being their only key to often forbiddingly obscure contributions?

The Men’s Free Press Collective’s observation in Feminism and Masculinities that its development involves “turning away from... abstractness and theoretical expertise” could be a comment on the defects of “elitist” feminisms. Here, abstractness is specifically associated with male socialism’s authoritarianism and with class questions. Paul Willis writes: “The working class distrust and rejection of theory comes partly from... recognition... of the hollowness of theory in its social guise.” Kenneth Clatterbaugh’s call for conceptual clarity arises from concern “that our language contributes to our becoming more isolated and elitist - more distanced from men and women in general”.

These dangers are avoided by Peter Murphy’s careful selection of wide-ranging essays, divided between 1970-85 and 1985-present. The book’s purported aim of investigating masculinity from a feminist perspective is fulfilled. While Murphy’s introductory section on pro-woman male authors raises as many questions as it answers, the coverage of feminist-inspired consideration of masculinities is admirably lucid without sacrificing subtlety of argument. We learn about the importance of women as the locus of male domination but also about the reality of women’s power over men; the cruciality of context in evaluation of sexual objectification; the complexity and plurality of hegemonic masculinity, its vital connection with men’s homosocial relations; the connection of manhood and racial domination; the under-examined importance of machismo in the setting of heavy manual work.

The historicity of ideas about masculinity and femininity is instructively illustrated when
we can see how times have changed and with them some credos. Jack Sawyer writes
more easily in pre-Thatcher 1974 of women’s lack of opportunity to be competitive and ruthless. Carl Wittman in 1972 seems comfortable with the characterisation of gay marriage as the product of self-hatred and with the positive value of sex with animals and dope use. Pre-1980s contributions do not have to allow for the effects of mass unemployment or of HIV/Aids. The basic ideas here may largely remain arguable but not, surely, on the same grounds.

Among this book’s many virtues is the correct philosophical use of “beg the question”. Students of feminisms and masculinities will surely benefit from consulting it, but it can be enjoyed by general readers beyond the usual customers for Oxford Readings in Feminism. It can be widely recommended as the converse of Contemporary French Feminism’ s significantly more limited usefulness and appeal.

Kenneth MacKinnon is a former professor of film studies, London Metropolitan University.

Contemporary French Feminism. First edition

Editor - Kelly Oliver and Lisa Walsh
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 254
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 0 19 924834 6

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