PLEASE NOTE: The following version is the only correct one, but some quotations have to be completed.
Luisa Passerini, Becoming a Subject in the Time of the Death of the Subject
Notes for a Paper given at the Bologna Conference, September 2000
This paper can be seen as a journey through neo-feminism, the first result of a research I am doing on what has been produced by feminist and other scholars in the last thirty years, while at the same time setting this production into a longer historical perspective. One main question of this paper is therefore: what is the added value of feminism to the way of understanding and conceptualising subjectivity? The implication of my title, which aims at expressing one of the many paradoxes of this history, is that a process of longue durée such as the subjectivisation of women has become particularly urgent and dramatic in the fields of knowledge and politics during the last decades. In presenting this story, I will follow a thread of thought expressed in classic metaphorical forms: sometimes stretched like a line between two poles (or a line for drying laundry), sometimes creeping on the ground like Ariadne's thread in the labyrinth of present and past subjectivity, and sometimes tied up in knots. These are metaphors which have been used since the archaic past to indicate human search, and very often with implicit or explicit reference to women and their cultures. After these preliminary remarks, I can state a principle which I consider a pivot of my position and a foundation of all my work:
Women have always been in some way subjects of their own lives. Subjectivity has meant for them not only agency or strategy, but also the internal movement accompanying action and planning, i.e. the hopes, fear, imagination, and expectancy connected with these. However, the nature, limits and awareness of subjectivity have changed enormously over the ages and places. History and anthropology have shown that women of the past as well as women in the societies of all continents and cultures had and have ways of negotiating various forms of autonomy and self-decision. However, these forms are never to be understood as absolute liberty, but as ways of asserting one's own needs and desires within existing conditions - sometimes very harsh ones - and eventually against such conditions, changing/innovating/challenging what others were resigned to accept as a given destiny. One can think of many examples from women's history and anthropology: the women who decided to control their fertility under the totalitarian regimes which made this a crime against the race; the women travellers who in the middle ages decided to travel for pilgrimage, for work, for escape, a travel undertaken as "the only movement which was possible to modify their lives" (Corsi, 20); the widows and mothers of 17th-century Tuscany who either deconstructed norms on the guardianship of their children or negotiated new ones (Calvi in Società Italiana delle Storiche 1990; Maura Palazzi and Anna Scattigno, in their Introduction to this collective book, indicate as a central process for the formation of subjectivity the experience of maternity/motherhood in the past); or a woman like Nisa, belonging to the gatherers-hunters !Kung San group in Africa, whose life-story collected by Marjorie Shostak is a display of subjectivity in all its manifestations, from love to dreams to fights.
This start is meant to say that subjectivity has not been invented by feminism, although the word as such has been used particularly in the last thirty years, a time coeval with second-wave feminism. And it is very important that feminism be always related to the traditions and struggles developed by women in various parts of the world and in various ages of time, with the resulting continuities and discontinuities in history. By saying that women have always been in some way the subjects of their lives, I do not intend by any means to attribute to women of places and times different than ours the types of subjectivity which are familiar to us today. In fact we must make the concept "subjectivity" as flexible and wide as possible in order to accomodate all the possible devices and inventions of the subject. We must be ready to recognise new forms of subjectivity when we find out how women have been able to cope with difficulties and advantages in their situations. This is one of the reasons why women's studies and gender's studies are of crucial importance: they are ways, mediated by the scholarly disciplines (which in their turn are modified and innovated by them), to contact and come to know other women, distant from us in the past and the present.
Already we have encountered two meanings of subjectivity. While the first insists on the capacity to imagine, think and decide one's life, the second refers to the relationship between subject and subject in the field of knowledge. In fact, the specificity of the age we are living through is determined by two concomitant processes: the great changes in the cultural, social and economic lives of women, on the one hand, and the "death of the subject" in the scientific fields, on the other.
The first is the process often called of emancipation, which takes for many women its "classical" forms, such as working also outside of the house and the domestic environment, being able to use contraceptives of various kinds, reaching high levels of education, having access to various forms of relationships, wearing whatever they like. All these forms can become spaces for the expression of subjectivity. However, it should be evident to us that all forms of emancipation - and of autonomy - involve new obligations and new chains, and do not by themselves abolish the patriarchal stereotypes concerning women and the feminine. The changes connected with emancipation have often been assigned to modernity - and in fact the whole movement of subjectivisation has been in the past assigned to modernisation; but let us be careful not to collapse the two processes into one and not to ignore the new chains of modernity. We know that the processes of Western modernity have fostered a certain type of subject, while many others can exist (Cascardi: "the modern reformulation of reason as subjectivity […] influences our 'post-modern' condition as well", 14). It should therefore be clear that the forms of emancipation which in some areas of the world are closely connected with effects of Western modernity such as the dissolution of the close community and the development of new forms of individualism, can take place in conditions where modernity has different features and coexists with new or traditional forms of community (based on blood, on religion, on marriage). In these societies women may be emancipated from the point of view of work and yet subordinated for what concerns education, fertility, dress. In any case a mixture of subordination and autonomy accompanies today all ways of emancipation and all assumptions of subjectivity (suffice it to recall the struggle over the regulation of women's fertility and the related biotechnology in the Western world).
The second process, the so-called death of the subject, refers in the first place to philosophy and theory, with decisive influences on many disciplinary areas. In Western philosophy, the unitary subject has been criticised by Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, a critique continued among others by Derrida and Foucault, which has reformulated the subject as a fiction of grammar, a historical product, a construct against the unconscious. This criticism has been fully taken in charge by feminists. Some have gone to the extent of rejoicing at the death of the subject as the end of an oppression. For instance, Ute Guzzoni has written a chapter (in a book with the slightly perplexing but telling title "Deconstructive Subjectivities") in reply to the question: "Do we still want to be subjects?", and her answer is No: "as subjects Europeans discovered and colonized foreign continents, Christians converted other people, men disciplined their wives, and husbands and wives disciplined their children. As subjects individuals have suppressed their own inclinations and needs" (216). More convincingly, Judith Butler has indicated that "the critique of the subject is not a negation or a repudiation of the subject, but, rather, a way of interrogating its construction as a pre-given or foundationalist premise", and has reminded us of the positive aspect of the deconstruction of the subject, which is "to open up a term, like the subject, to a re-usage or redeployment that previously had not been authorised".
Of course we have to gain from the (partial) death of the subject, or better from the disappearance of the old subject and the resurgence of another. We can accept the metaphor used as a title for a feminist conference organised in Italy, in Verona, by the cultural association "Il filo di Arianna" (Ariadne's Thread) in 1993, which was a discussion on the question of subjectivity between Rosi Braidotti and Adriana Cavarero: "Il tramonto del soggetto e l'alba della soggettività femminile" (the sunset of the subject and the dawn of feminine/female subjectivity). To use the terms proposed by that conference, we have everything to gain in giving up a conception of the subject, which ignored the body, denied differences, and privileged the conscious level.
However, the re-definition of what it means to be a subject is no simple task, and not only in theoretical terms; things are not at all simpler at the pragmatic and political levels, as the present difficulty of envisaging forms of action and expression for collective subjects indicates. Therefore we can say that becoming a subject implies today a particular complexity. After what I already said, "becoming a subject" is an expression, which implicitly refers to various levels of subjectivity. Not a hierarchy, but a range, a gamut of possibilities, from the gleam of subjectivity which is possible even in conditions of extreme oppression (cultural or spiritual as well as material) to the display of potentiality which we can imagine when we consider the prospect of being a subject of one's own life in a full sense, a "full subject", "un sujet à part entière" - although we know that the subject can never be without a void in itself. (Edkins, Persram and Pin-Fat: the subject is always in the process of being constituted, it is by definition incomplete or impossible - a lack arising from the gap between the real and the imaginary in the mirror phase and then from the gap between the imaginary and the symbolic of social - Lacan; the subject only ever will have been). For me, for my perspective, or my positionality, to use Gayatry Spivak's term, this means that subjectivity is always a historical process, a series of changes and not a static condition, a development although not necessarily a linear evolution. It is a narrative, although not necessarily of a single story.
Becoming a subject cannot be separated from developing/inventing a capacity for inter-subjectivity. It is indeed one of the major results of recent research (by this I mean that of the last thirty years, coeval with second-wave feminism) that subjectivity cannot be conceptualised without inter-subjectivity. This link has been expressed in a number of ways in the existing literature. For instance Wendy Hollway, in her Subjectivity and Method in Psychology (1989), where she explores the relationships between "gender, meaning and science", proposes a concept of subjectivity which "is not only dynamic, non-unitary and embraces the extra-rational, but is discoverable only within inter-subjective relations" (86). Some years earlier in Changing the Subject (1984), she and her co-editors had written that they did "use 'subjectivity' to refer to individuality and self-awareness but understand in this usage that subjects are dynamic and multiple" (3), and criticised the dominance of "the unitary rational subject". It was a logical consequence that this critique, in order to reach its final point, had to include inter-subjectivity. The enlargement and enrichment of the previous definition into the new one was done by Hollway on the basis of the analysis of some actual cases of her patients' inter-subjective relations, and thanks to an integration of Melanie Klein's work in her vision. Hollway says that she was inspired by the fact that Klein privileges the defence mechanisms which work between people rather than within a person as in Lacan and Foucault, so that inter-subjective relations become the location for the negotiation of meaning and its effects, through power, on subjectivity (84). This approach allows Oliver to "reclaim subjectivity" for those who were classed as "others" than white middle-class men: black and Third World people, working-class-people and women (133).
Let us retain and keep with us for a while the problematic connection between inter-subjectivity and power - of course pointed at by Foucault, but particularly problematic for feminists. There are some very relevant efforts by feminists to get rid of this connection. I anticipate that I don't think we can do away with it, but it is crucial for me to discuss with those who try to do that. Kelly Oliver, in Subjectivity without Subjects - a suggestive title which exposes a potential outcome of the elimination of the issue of power - develops and complicates a model which she had already proposed in her previous book Womanizing Nietzsche. She takes up biologist Hélène Rouch's remarks in an interview with Luce Irigaray on the fetus-placenta-maternal body as a system of exchange that prefigures and sets up inter-subjective exchanges (149), and she traces the transition from placental systems to linguistic systems of inter-subjective exchange. Oliver acknowledges that Hegel had given an account of subjectivity as relational and inter-subjective in his analysis of the lordship-bondsman relationship; but she claims that, while in his model subjectivity required hostility, alienation, dominance, servitude, and a clash of wills - a deadly conflict - for the sake of the recognition of the self from the other, the placental model offers exchange, communication, connection, negotiation, which are not driven by a desire or need for recognition (151). In this perspective, self and other are the illusory by-products of subjectivity; on the level of Oliver's biological model, "there is no subject", which allows to "avoid many philosophical problems" (150). Therefore she proposes a theory of subjectivity based on witnessing rather than recognition. While I disagree with this, I am interested in the way she does it, using visual material and interpretation. Oliver uses Agnes Varda's 1985 film Sans toi ni loi (English title: Vagabond), and analyses the ways in which the protagonist Mona relates to others, in order to show that relations to otherness can open up possibilities for imagining relations of difference: idealisation, identification, objectification, abjection (161: Kristeva's abjection - the subtitle of the book is From abject fathers to desiring mothers), compassion, and witnessing rather than recognition. Bearing witness to the other is an infinite process that never reaches its goal (175) and is free from maintaining "the mastery of the subject over itself and the other", creating an alternative to subject-object and master-slave relationships. I like the method, if not the hypothesis. So, I will make a digression trying to get something from the method, which suggests a direction of further research on subjectivity.
I see as very promising the line of studying subjectivity through images - in all possible media. For instance, the last documentary by Agnes Varda, La glaneuse et les glaneurs (Gleaning and gleaners), 1999, is about people who collect what others have thrown away or abandoned: potatoes in the fields, fruit and vegetables in the market, objects of various sorts. I was amazed to see in which powerful way subjectivity emerges through these images: not only through the self-portrait of Varda, who at the beginning of the film presents herself disguised as the figure in the famous painting by Millet, with a bunch of wheat on her shoulder - she too is a gleaner - but also through her characters. They constitute to me a moving suggestion that in our society subjectivity or the movement towards becoming a subject can be found in the interstices, unseen, despised like a garbage site, where such a movement can take place on the basis of shrewd practices of recuperation and recycling.
There are many other examples of studies of subjectivity through images. I have in mind an essay by Jacqueline Maingard on questions of identity and subjectivity in South African documentary film and video; or the study by Kaja Silverman on male subjectivity in Fassbinder and others (and see the connections established by Christopher Pye between the theatre, more generally the spectacle, and the market). But I find particularly fascinating and suggestive the insights that come from the field of women's self-portraits. I am not thinking only of the great portraits by painters such as Sofonisba Anguissola and Artemisia Gentileschi, but also very much of recent and sometimes rather obscure works of art by women portraying themselves, often in a very significant and moving way.
I have recently seen in Paris an exhibition, "Narcisse blessé - Autoportraits contemporains", which presents art produced from 1970 to 2000, exactly the period of our interest here, including many works by women. In these, a first theme is the multiplication of the self-image, which can be seen as a metaphor for the non-unitary subject: for instance Mireille Loup (born 1969) and Tomoko Sawada (born 1977) have done collages of photographs of themselves ("each of my faces", is the title used by the former), while Esther Ferrer (1937) presents a decomposition of her visage. But I was especially struck by the fact that these artists use so often the tools of the mask, the masquerade, the parody, the disguise. Rachel Laurent (1946) and Anne Ferrari (1962) represent themselves in ironical détournements of the image of the bull (there is a long history of the relationships between the bull and the woman in Western mythology), while Kamiko Yoshida (born 1963) has a series of photographs of herself disguised as an angel ("Autoportrait angélique"), and Yasumasa Morimura (1951) appears dressed like Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, offering a self-portrait after Vivien Leigh set against a Japanese landscape (see attached images from the catalogue Narcisse blessé). These examples tell us vividly the capacity of the contemporary subject to exercise self-reflection and self-irony, to play with her multiplicity without denying the dramatic sides of the masquerade and the multiplication.
Let me close this digression taking with me these two aspects, self-reflection and self-irony, and go back to the polemic about subjectivity and conflict, and about witnessing and recognition. I would like to rescue the visual method from its connection with "witnessing" - established by Oliver - and move it to a connection with "recognition", that Oliver got rid of because of its link with the Helena figures of enslavement and conflict over power. In both witnessing and recognition, there is an important allusion to the eye, to the image. So, why do I prefer recognition? Not out of sheer love for Hegel. Actually, I am interested in its implications for subjectivity in two ways: because it allows self-reflection, and because it allows conflict. I refer to the way the concept of recognition is developed by Nancy Fraser: the recognition of others stays in a close relationship of reciprocity with self-recognition - which poses at the centre the capacity to interact. For Fraser too, the subject exists only in relation to other subjects, but the possibility of mis-recognition is also constitutive of this relation - a social bond of mutual regard or disregard. Her subject includes a strong ethical dimension, a sense of rightness and dignity, of fairness and normativity. But it is not the ethical dimension that I mostly appreciate in Fraser's work on recognition. I am aware that the ethical need of a subject can be satisfied in opposite ways. For Jane Flax a "fully ethical position" can be found only in "the ability to tolerate and the will to encourage fluid and multiple forms of subjectivity"; for Diana Tietjens Meyers, who poses the "problem of the moral subject" trying to reconcile psychoanalytic feminism and moral philosophy, a "moral subjectivity" cannot be reached unless it embraces the dissident linguistic capacities attributed by Julia Kristeva to the decentered self, along with the empathic capacities that Nancy Chodorow and Jessica Benjamin discern in the social self (10) (she uses Chodorow's and Benjamin's theories of the constitution of subjectivity concerning parent-child relations at the earliest stages of development", 16); for Meyers too, the moral subject of empathic thought is nonunitary, pluralistic and heterogeneous (18).
What I find promising of Fraser's work on this is her effort to reconcile the theory of recognition with the Freudian paradigm of a split subject, and to acknowledge the element of authority that is implicit in defining one's identity. A first essential element of recognition is for me, as I said, that it can include self-reflection. I cannot envisage subjectivity and subjects without self-reflection, particularly in view of the claims toward the non-unitary character of the subject. While it is precisely the split nature of the subject that allows self-reflection - how could a solid monolithic subject reflect over itself? - the debate on multiple identities has shown the risks implicit in a vision of the total dissemination of the subject. My idea is that self-reflection can act as criterion which avoids the complete fragmentation of the subject and its transformation into an unreflecting multiplicity, which is the danger opposite to that of the unitary subject; self-reflection seems to me to find a way between the Scylla and Charybdis of too solid and too loose a subject. The element of self-irony is also crucial, not only because laughter is a royal way for the contact between conscious and unconscious, but especially because it may help in de-dramatising the excessive narcissism which often accompanies the efforts of becoming a subject.
Secondly, recognition can include a capacity for both solidarity and dissent. Reflecting upon my own experience of feminism I have become convinced that conflicts between women and the capacity to stand them civilly are a primary part of the process of becoming full subjects. While I am glad to gain everything there is to gain from the model of the placenta, I don't want to give up the representation of subjectivity as a battleground where exchange, co-operation and conflict between women take place. On this battleground there is space for cohesion, solidarity, and love, which perhaps prevail during the phases of the genesis of subjectivity - such as before birth and in the first stages of life. But there is also antagonism, struggle, opposition. My experience of feminism is that conflicts are a very important part of becoming a subject, and that conflicts between women, and between feminists, are particularly painful. I think that we all have experienced the sense of annihilation which comes from not being seen by and not seeing any longer the other women with whom we deeply disagree. (This is a negative legacy of the past: disagreement without confrontation, without respect, without recognising to each other the right to be a full subject; it is just as negative as denying to the other a recognition of her excellence and her success.) Accepting the conflict and yet looking into the eyes of the other woman - i.e. fully recognising her and myself as a subject: this is a major task in which we should be involved, fighting against the forms of fundamentalism which exist within the women's movements and within ourselves. I firmly believe that the exploration of the ways to achieve forms of civil or democratic conflict - i.e. the capacity of dissenting without denying the rights of the other - can be one of the major contributions by feminism to civil society, just as the experience of consciousness raising can be a contribution to the notion and practice of direct democracy. I also hope that in this way feminism will contribute to the creation of a space which I have at heart, a new Europe including its Western and Eastern parts, open to everyone who is ready to engage in a common effort of exchange.
Let us now go back to the connection between subjectivity on the one hand and power and conflict on the other. I found useful for this line of thought a collection of essays on Sovereignty and Subjectivity. The collection is based on the acknowledgement that modern politics (particularly in its international dimension) cannot avoid the tension between claims about sovereignty and claims about subjectivity: subjectivity comes into being by virtue of the promise of sovereignty for the subject within the social order, which also claimed sovereignty for itself (172) - generating thus an unavoidable perpetual conflict. The collection includes studies on the Bosnian conflict, Haiti, Argentina, and one by Eilis Haughey, on Gypsy Identity and Political Theory, which is rather interesting. Gypsy groups began their sweep across Europe at the beginning of the XV century, since before states ever existed; according to Haughey they traditionally claimed no unifying group identity, referring to themselves simply as "the people", and omitting any mention of race, ethnicity, territory, or religion while dismissing any concept of national interest (their experience is reminiscent of that of the Aboriginal tribes of Australia and Canada, who were forced to deny or abandon distinguishing features of their cultures, not only the land, but their lifestyle and, worst than everything else, to suffer "a standardized version" of their culture). The case of the Gypsy shows that the connection, typical of the nation-state, between the sovereign subject and territoriality can simply be abandoned in theoretical terms; the inference of this volume is that at this point we can imagine an ethico-political project showing how particular forms of subjectivity produce and legitimise the political arrangements of sovereignty, which cannot be considered any longer as the central organising principle of international relations theory, but must be viewed alongside the process of subject formation; a change of the two should be envisaged together (using Zizek, Derrida and Irigaray).
While it is only without a sovereign that a rethinking of the political is possible, still subjectivity continues to operate as a strategy of power and identity. In other words, I do not think that we can expel power and conflict from subjectivity and I believe that this term always includes the two elements of sovereignty and of subordination. After this position statement, done through a confrontation with other authors, particularly feminists, following the thread through its tensions as well as its loose trajectory, I intend to explore subjectivity through knots, i.e. disagreements and oppositions which have characterised the history of feminism and feminist studies. The term "knot" is of course very ancient, but it has been used in our time by various writers, such as Lacan and Laing, to indicate dilemmas and apparently unsolvable questions. (It might be interesting in the future to reflect on the use of this metaphor, which cannot be done here; but I would like to quote in this context an interesting book by Adriano Sofri, who relates the metaphor particularly to the relationship masculine/feminine.) I have chosen three knots, corresponding to an intertwining of different temporal dimensions, to illustrate our historical debates on subjectivity.
When I became a feminist, in 1970, "subjectivity" had mainly an oppositional meaning. It meant being alternative, different, engaged in changing oneself and the world. It was used in this sense - at least in some Western European countries - not only by feminists but also by other movements such as students and workers. If there is a specificity of the Italian movement, this has been the insistence on difference - often much too much, but sometimes also to the relationship between difference and equality: "difference" meant since the early 1970s not only that between women and men; frequently it indicated the differences among women as well as the whole field of women's subjectivity. Today, after thirty years of feminist research, the oppositional value of subjectivity can no longer be exclusive. Debates and research by feminists have explored the right and role of non-oppositional subjectivity, i.e. of those forms of women's subjectivity which are generated within the patriarchal domain and sometimes even produced by men or under their jurisdiction.
This debate is linked with the emergence of women's cultural studies. Terry Lovell, in Feminist Cultural Studies (1995), has written of "typical subjectivities" and included in her collection many examples of these, such as the "seductive power of feminine subjectivity" inscribed in the performance of a dance (as in the analysis by Sally Peters on ballroom dancing) in which however "at the same time the detachment which may be achieved even from the self is performed". This double nature of subjectivity had been explored in the pathbreaking research by Modleski (1982) and Radway (1984), who showed that mass market romance fiction could host women's compensatory fantasies of power and revenge, and that women had put up fights in order to claim the time of romance reading as their own. Cultures of femininity can be seen as a refuge, as a jumping board, as an area of resistance, fostering the process of "becoming a subject" and oppositional subjectivity, because they have acted as "alternative means through which women in patriarchal capitalist cultures have manoeuvred and negotiated to gain some space, some powers, however limited and curtailed", even if they are experienced by certain women - such as the younger ones - as deeply and only oppressive. They include what Lovell calls "female-policed worlds of socialisation" but also areas of authority for women. An example of such situations, which I like to quote here in homage to the women of the region where we are guests, Emilia-Romagna, is the figure of the "arzdora" in the tradition of the countryside around this town: strong women who used to govern the rural house in the agricultural system of share (on the importance of this image for feminists see Centro di Documentazione delle Donne, Il movimento delle donne in Emilia-Romagna). It is important to recognise the importance but also the ambivalence of such forms of women's authority within the patriarchal order.
At the same time I would like to suggest that oppositional subjectivity - and this is a largely unexplored theme - can contain many elements of "typical" or traditional feminine cultures, although détournés within a project of liberation, concerning cosmetics, dresses, coquette behaviour, knitting, cooking, sexual behaviour. Who can say to which extent some of these elements included in oppositional subjectivity do not reproduce "women", "girls", "femininity" in the old sense and their subordination? Not only: the ambivalence of women's authority can still reappear in some present situations, for instance concerning the role of departments of women's studies in institutional and scientific contexts. The doubleness of subjectivity makes untenable the simple dichotomies between a culture of femininity forged by men or patriarchy and a feminist or womanist culture created by women, between feminine ideology and feminine resistance, between "women's culture" and commercial cultures of femininity. These are too easy distinctions, precisely because women as subjects intervene heavily on both sides. The acceptance of doubleness does not only smash any illusion that subjectivity can be immediately and completely alternative, tout court the basis for a thoroughly new world, but also any moralistic assumption that there are areas of subjectivity equivalent to a "false consciousness" of women, an internalised femininity inherited from patriarchy, to be expurgated and denounced. Let us leave the first knot keeping with us the doubleness, the tension between the oppositional and the "typical" aspects of subjectivity.
Another major debate concerns the location of subjectivity between experience and discourse. There have been various degrees of disagreement between feminists, for instance between those who privilege the former term and those who focus on the latter: as an example one might use some debates of the second half of the 1980s-beginning of the 1990s, such as those among oral historians - which here I will skip for the sake of time - and the observations by Eleni Varikas on the controversy Louise Tilly/Joan Scott. Let us remember that Varikas had been editor with Christine Planté and Michèle Riot-Sarcey of a crucial publication, Les Cahiers du Grif special issue on the gender of history, 1988, whose approach was expressed in the title "Femmes sujets de discours, femmes sujets de l'histoire", as the intention to make women at the same time subjects of discourse and subjects of history.
Varikas started from the consideration that the political will to give women the status of subjects of history had been growing in the 1970s and 1980s and played an important role in putting feminist historians in touch with women's historical experiences. She shared Scott's criticism of the presumption of a close (causal) connection between structural positions and social interests, between social interests and needs and forms of awareness [where we find subjectivity], but at the same time she shared Tilly's skepticism as to the capacity of deconstruction to work out a vision of women as subjects of history. Varikas was concerned with the ways in which the question of historical determination, subjectivity and agency is worked out in the construction of the category of gender. Her criticism of Scott pointed at the impersonality of the discursive forces which construct the meaning of a culture and to the "literal absence of the subject from Scott's explanation of theories of the production of meaning" (97), the actors of the conflict being "forces of signification", "fixed oppositions", "differentiation procedures" which remove from our view the people implicated. In the end Varikas posed important questions: "although it may seem naive and subjectivist, one cannot help asking a question or two: What is the active role of actors at the bottom of the hierarchy in the procedures of differentiation that establish these [gender] hierarchies? Are they in a position to subvert or displace the discursive formations in which they are trapped, or are they doomed to bow to the 'laws' of these formations and just come out with a few declaratory variations?"
Up to this point, I agree with Varikas and would like, still today, to echo the questions she poses. But the complicacy of the question is due to the fact that I don't agree with the further steps taken by Varikas. She argues that in Scott's work, "even when women are the subjects of discourse" (we are talking of work up to 1990), "the construction of identities is looked at solely in connection with discursive formation and the cultural model impedes the grasp of some important aspects of the dynamic of social relations between the sexes" (98). Varikas also agrees on Tilly's criticism of Scott, when Tilly writes that Scott casts doubt on both the existence of a real universe and the possibility of understanding or explaining it - and with Tilly's passionate defence of the role of social history in respecting human initiative. For Varikas a historical practice that claims liberation as its starting point and political aim cannot accept the equivalence between, on the one hand, the fact that "it is impossible to reconstitute as such the raw facts of slavery, witch-hunt or the extermination of Indian populations" and, on the other, the claim that "these facts have the same status as those related in a short story or science fiction novel".
I disagree with these last steps, because they seem to me ways of going back to a dichotomic approach, and not only on the basis of subsequent Scott's work, which would be an anachronistic way of intervening in this debate. If indeed "the construction of identities were [my italics] looked at solely in connection with discursive formation", as Varikas accuses Scott of doing, I would be satisfied and would see there already "the dynamic of social relations between the sexes". In other words, I would be satisfied to find the traces of experience in discourse, while still asking the questions about the role of the subject Varikas was asking. The problem here is the relationship between experience and narration, and a convincing approach to it can be found in the theory of subjectivity proposed by Kim Worthington in Self as Narrative: "the construction of a subject's sense of selfhood should be understood as a creative narrative process achieved within a plurality of intersubjective communicative protocols", quoting Anthony Kerby: "narratives are a primary embodiment of our understanding of the world, of experience, and ultimately of ourselves". For Worthington "the use of the term 'narration' is intended to denote the constitutive process by which human being order their conceptions of self and of the world around them" (13). Still this author argues "for a conception of the human subject as agent of both personal and social change" (15) and analyses contemporary fictions (Banville, Coetzee, Atwood) which are in a full sense fictional autobiographies and "which self-reflexively scrutinise their own processes of production" (17).
Autobiography is a necessary passage, in this itinerary through subjectivity. And women's autobiographical practices are indispensable to understand the relationship between experience and narration. While I agree that the link between these two is deep, originary and foundational as Worthington says, I would like to add something more: Sidonie Smith contrasts traditional autobiography, where the subject was presumed to be universal (male, unique, unitary, unencumbered, escaping all forms of embodiment), with the new women's autobiographies, where the self is no longer prelinguistic and extralinguistic, where subjectivity is embodied, where the excluded and the colourful "talk back". Although this contrast is too schematic and rigid, it has a moment of truth. I recognise through it my own struggles for writing my personal experience and my effort to give experience and subjectivity back to the subjects of my history writing.
A point of reference for this complex question can be found in the women's movements' insistence, implicitly and explicitly, on the need to maintain a tension between experience and narration. The movement based one of its major practice, consciousness-raising, on the narration of experience; this practice became crucial precisely as experience of narration. By reflecting upon this knot - narration of experience, experience of narration - in the history of feminism (I believe that we have not yet drawn all the implications, both practical and theoretical, from our practices), I infer that for this second knot I better not propose either to undo or loosen it, as I try to do for the first and third knots, and certainly not to cut it as if were a Gordian knot. I propose to keep it as a knot in one's handkerchief, in order not to forget - in our studies and in our politics - to find experience in narration and narration in experience.
A third knot involves what at first sight appears as grammatical questions: does subjectivity have a plural and can it stand adjectives? The problem does not touch the word "subject", which stands very well both plurals and adjectives. Actually some of the adjectives invented by feminist theorists are very meaningful, and have added new value to the term: "nomadic" (Braidotti), "excentric" (de Lauretis), "elusive" (Jane Flax). They express the great changes in subjectivity that I have been trying to describe talking of the death and resurrection of the subject. But with "subjectivity", it is a different question. Let me make some examples. In my research for this paper, I found mentions of "Victorian subjectivity" (Gagnier), "lesbian subjectivity" (Associazione etc), "erotic subjectivity" (Kulick and Willson), "racialised subjectivity" (Mama), "middle-class subjectivity" (Kessinger), "wartime subjectivities" (Summerfield). All these phrases generate in me some uneasiness, because the multiplication of subjectivities remind me of the stiffness of some identity politics; I am afraid that all those expressions reduce subjectivity drastically, depriving it of its doubleness because they privilege exclusively its empirical contents. An even greater uneasiness is stirred in me by the terms "female subjectivity" and "feminine subjectivity", because I do not like to understand the gender divide as slicing subjectivity neatly and evenly like a cake.
However, this question is not solved by pointing out, as I have already done, the concomitance of opposition and typicality. It requires that we pick up the relationship between individual and collective, always a major theme for feminism in the second half of the twentieth century, and therefore the differences within the collective, whether they are based upon region, race and age. This much is involved today if we want to pose the issues of solidarity between women (which at a certain point came to be expressed in terms of "sisterhood", a word which I do not like very much, as I prefer terms based on elective affinities rather than on blood). The "grammatical" question is indeed highly political. The problem is that of becoming a collective subject that is capable of acting and thinking and imagining together, of moving like a subject while exalting the individual and individual relationships. Let me mention that the Women's Centre in Bologna has in many occasions given me the sense of putting into practice the double possibility of being a collective subject and giving recognition to individuals; I think that this is one of the secrets of their success.
Concerning the many meanings of the relationship collective/individual in the field of subjectivity and in the context of feminism, the sore points are those that mark the differences between women where subjectivity meets region, race and age. I'll leave aside, although it is for me of the utmost interest, the regional differences, such as those between women of Eastern and Western Europe, but I believe that we should create further occasions to discuss that. On ethnicity and race, I just want to quote briefly a case that impressed me in Avtar Brah's volume on Cartographies of Diaspora, a particular useful example for understanding the question of differences among women. She presents (193) the case of two black young women of Jamaican parentage living in Britain: one defines herself as Jamaican and/or Caribbean; the other, in spite of her similar background, asserts a black British identity; yet they both wish to repudiate the same process of exclusion. Brah observes that "the subjectivity of the two women is inscribed within different political practices and they occupy different subject position" and uses the concept of diaspora to signal processes of multi-locationality. These processes, she writes, help us to understand the subject as constituted in the interstices of the articulation of "difference" and "commonalty", therefore as inherently relational processes of identification and differentiation (247). Following the line of thought suggested by this example, I prefer not to pluralise and adjectivise subjectivity, but rather to talk of different locations that women as groups and as individuals can have within the field of subjectivity.
Let us now come to the area where subjectivity meets age. This question has been defined, at least in this country, as the problem of transmission or of creating a feminist tradition. Often the two are considered as more or less equivalent terms, although Franca Bimbi has established an interesting difference between them: tradition implies passing on symbols (continuity) with a possible discontinuity (innovation) of contents and meanings (as it happens in the mother/daughter relationship), while transmission - a more modern concept - has to do with successful socialisation. Personally, I prefer the term "tradition", because it seems more political and because it can include "betrayal" or radical change. Even if we accept this distinction, in feminism the two processes are linked together, which makes both very problematic. Within feminism, the question of transmission/tradition has to be posed in both fields of politics and knowledge and in the areas of intertwining between the two. Therefore it is linked with what has been called the emergence of feminine subjectivity in the field of knowledge ("l'emergenza della soggettività femminile sulla scena dei saperi", see Marino and Nunziante, Soggetto femminile e scienze umane on the specificity of the transmission of knowledge between women), but also with the problem of founding some sort of continuity in the political memory of feminism.
Memory is a form of subjectivity, but feminism is well known for its constant combination of memory and amnesia. I have been an oral historian for many years and I never completely abandoned the practice of and reflection on that expertise. Memory has helped me to introduce subjectivity into history, which has been a constant effort of all my work. But now I am not satisfied with it, let me try to say why. I remember that in 1991 I published a book of essays on the history of feminism in Italy, which were inspired by the principle "restituire soggettività", give subjectivity back to women in history, and largely based on oral history. In the introduction to that book I posed the problem of the connection between "transmission and freedom", i.e. of sending a message which is neither authoritarian nor authoritative but rather suspended, incomplete - the opposite of the message of the veteran or the survivor. Not: "you who have not lived that experience cannot understand - unless you listen to me", but: "I cannot understand my experience unless you take it up and propose your meaning for it"; my self-recognition is impossible unless you, the new-born of Hanna Arendt, recognise at the same time yourself and me. But I added, following Roland Barthes, that this suspended, unfinished message had to be given without an expectation, in order to avoid pre-determining any reply, like in a love which might well be unrequited. Solitude and responsibility, individuality and shared subjectivity were combined in this proposal, and memory was an essential tool within it.
I don't disagree with these words which I wrote ten years ago. I still hope that at a certain point the innumerable practices of remembering by women - in written, oral and visual form - might constitute what I call an accumulated memory, and this is certainly happening in a general sense. I am still convinced that in many situations the possibility for women to let their voices be heard is crucial and can induce important changes. However, first of all I believe that that form of solitary transmission I was alluding to has some meaning in the field of knowledge and teaching, where the reply to our words often comes years after they were uttered. However, in the field of politics and of creating a political tradition of feminism, I now seriously doubt that individual memories of feminism can solve the problem. Indeed I am now convinced that sometimes they make it worse, especially if they are delivered in the "veteran's tone", which uses experience as a way of excluding; the "I" and the "we" are limited rather than enlarged by this generational appropriation of memory. Finally, knowing the amount of work that is necessary to transform memory into a historical source, I wonder how much and in which direction it is necessary to work in order to transform it into a tool for founding a political tradition.
The memories of feminists are a fascinating genre and an important tool only if we succeed in creating a context where they can be fully used. Since tradition cannot mean simply a one-way communication not only in the field of teaching but also in that of politics, an urgent task is the creation of a context generated by and generating in its turn a two-way communication, where the first to speak is not the older woman. This issue presents some similarities with the encounter of subjectivity with the issue of race, a field where white middle-class middle-age feminists have accepted to be silent, at least for a while, to listen and to speak again only after having listened and questioned. Silence may be sometimes an affirmation of subjectivity, and this is true also for the exercise of listening, a lesson learned from oral history: a temporary silence, which is full of expectation. I believe that we must take as a point of departure the voice of the younger. A point of departure towards where? Towards the creation of a language. There is no substantial common language between generations of feminists, or it exists only partially, in areas where the interlocutors are often linked by personal relationships and where the personal has not openly become political. There are many hints, from which we can start from in order to listen, to question and to discuss.
Among these points of departure I take the Introduction to the Next GENDERation Network by Esther Vonk and Diana Anders. It begins by observing that "there are a lot of young women today that do identify themselves as feminists" and explains that "our motivation to make this an issue is […] the desire to be heard and seen, to make a subject position that is not voiced in the public debate, to speak up for ourselves". Continuities with previous generations' intents are evident, but it is in the discontinuities that I am most interested (and of course in the relationships between continuities and discontinuities). A discontinuity is the character of "given", "inherited" which is expressed by one of the starting sentences of this "manifesto": "we suddenly find ourselves in the position of 'young feminists'" (a challenge to the mediatic image of young aggressive "girls" in the shopping mall, but also a challenge to the connected image of the old feminist "complaining"). And I realise, through these words, that I suddenly find myself in the position of 'old feminist'. My proposal is to accept these positions defined by age and yet at the same time recognise the possibility to jump in and out of such positions, thanks to subjectivity, to play with these determinations without denying them. We need, we of all ages, to transform this "given" - this "being born into", "being cast", "finding oneself" - into full subjectivity. The potential for this transformation is already there, in germ, in the challenge to use today the word feminist (which however we can change at any time - let me remember that for a long time the old generation did not want to call ourselves feminists). One crucial move would be the effort to create elements of a common language, or even better of interlocution: in which sense are the generations reciprocal interlocutors? (We should remember that among the younger interlocutors some men have proposed, implicitly or explicitly, a full interlocution (see for instance the implicit dialogue between contributions by both women and men in Bellassai-Malatesta; Pustianaz)).
Another move might be to understand better what "generation" means in relationship to feminism. There seems to be a need to deconstruct - politically, and not only sociologically - the term "next" or "younger generation", first in the sense of dis-aggregating it: doesn't it comprehend many types of young women, with many differences among them including age: young women of different age-groups (the debate within the network "30 something" - a network created in Italy by women of this age (Inchiesta: presentation by Anna Lisa Tota and Saveria Capecchi) - included the proposal to use the concept of cohort in order to operate this disaggregation. A welcome idea, if cohort can be liberated from/of its originally narrow numerical definition of five years, just as "generation" has been liberated from its biological meaning people born within the same fifteen years, and enlarged to a political meaning of those who have shared a similar experience such as the Resistance or 1968. At the same time we should also disaggregate terms such as the "old" or "previous" generation. Again, not only in the sociological sense, but in the political one, trying to discern different messages, different discourses, different forms of interlocutions. But a constructive move too might be useful, indicating what the new generations share. I have in mind a piece by young feminist historians (in the book Generazioni, the outcome of a workshop organised in Orvieto by the Italian Society of Women Historians, SIS 1993), women born at the beginning of the 1960s, who expressed their common heritage and a need to develop relationships with the future, with the generations following them (159). The terms used are ascendance and descendence, but we should no longer think of all this in terms of stairs going up and down. The different locations, the disparity must be envisaged at the same level (this is why "affidamento", or mutual trust, a proposal by the Milan's Women's Bookshop, which has played an important role in the practice and theory of many feminists, seems to me to be unsatisfactory - Libreria delle Donne di Milano). The same level means equality, as in the search for truth, where everybody can learn from everybody without any hierarchy.
In this sense I find significant that Juliet Mitchell in her last book Mad Men and Medusas reclaims the effect of sibling relationships on human conditions - what she calls the great omission in psychoanalytic observation and theory. Not because I want to extend a biological metaphor to feminism today as a contemporary version of sisterhood, but because I like the interpretative and methodological implications of this term. Sibling relations in Mitchell's work include rivalry and murderous feelings, love/hate ambivalence; therefore this concept brings in itself difference and displacement that the old and the young/new experience towards each other, but it can be envisaged as a horizontal not a vertical relationship.
I would like to end this paper in two ways. First, by summing up the contributions of feminism to subjectivity, the added value that the women's movement has brought to the forms of subjectivity that women have always lived with. Feminism has made subjectivity central, and has shown that inter-subjectivity is constitutive of it; it has given new meanings to the term and the concept; it has helped us to become subjects in a never ending process. Second, I would like to quote from Virginia Woof a passage which expresses well, I believe, the relationship between the individual and the collective - where "collective" can be given many meanings: the epoch in which one lives, the shared state of old or young age, and even the collectivity of feminism. The passage is from Orlando and comments the fact that Orlando - already a "she" - has come, by deciding to marry, to a transaction with the spirit of the age, by deciding to marry, with a degree of self-irony which reconciles her individual and collective perceptions: "she need neither fight her age, nor submit to it; she was of it, yet remained herself" (188).
I would like to thank Liliana Ellena, Paola Pallavicini, and Polymeris Voglis, who gave bibliographical and conceptual suggestions for this paper.
Associazione per una Libera Università delle Donne, La soggettività lesbica. Confronto di esperienze fra donne che amano le donne, Milano 1998
Bellassai Sandro and Malatesta Maria (eds), Genere e mascolinità. Uno sguardo storico, Bulzoni, roma 2000
Bimbi Franca, Tradizione e trasmissione tra generazioni di donne, in La differenza non sia un fiore di serra (a cura de Il filo di Arianna), Franco Angeli, Milano 1991
Brah Avtar, Cartographies of Diaspora. Contesting Identities, Routledge, London 1996
Braidotti Rosi, Nomadic Subjects, Columbia University Press, New York 1994
Butler Judith, "Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the question of 'Postmodernism'", in Judith Butler and Joan Scott (editors), Feminists Theorize the Political, Routledge, London-New York 1992
Calvi Giulia, Dal margine al centro. Soggettività femminile, famiglia, Stato moderno in Toscana (XVI.XVIII sec.), in Società Italiana delle Storiche 1990
Les Cahiers du Grif, 37/38, Spring 1988: "Le genre de l'histoire", Tierce, Paris
Cascardi Anthony J., The Subject of Modernity, Cambridge University Press,
Centro di Documentazione delle Donne, Il movimento delle donne in Emilia-Romagna. Alcune vicende tra storia e memoria (1970-1980), Analisi, Bologna 1990
Corsi Dinora, Introduzione, to Eadem (ed), Altrove. Viaggi di donne dall'antichità al Novecento, Viella, Roma 1999
de Lauretis Teresa, Soggetti eccentrici, Feltrinelli, Milano 1999
Edkins Jenny, Persram Nalini, and Pin-Fat Véronique (eds), Sovereignty and Subjectivity, Lynne Rienner, Boulder, London 1999
Flax Jane, "Multiples: On the contemporary politics of subjectivity", Human Studies, 16, 1993, pp. 33-49
Fraser Nancy, "Subjectivity, Recognition and Social Justice", Paper given at the Workshop "Subjects and Subjectivity in History", 12-13 March 1999, European University Institute, Florence
Gagnier Regina, Subjectivities: a history of self-representation in Britain, 1832-1920, Oxford University Press 1991
Guzzoni Ute, Do We Still Want to Be Subjects?, in Simon Critchley and Peter Dews (eds), Deconstructive Subjectivities, State University of New York Press, Albany 1996
Henriques J., Hollway W., Urwin C., Venn C., Walderkine V., Changing the Subject: Psychology, Social Relations and Subjectivity, Methuen, London 1984
Hollway Wendy, Subjectivity and Method in Psychology. Gender, Meaning and Science, Sage, London 1989
"Il tramonto del soggetto e l'alba della soggettività femminile", DWF, 4, 1993, pp. 69-90
Inchiesta, XXIX, 125, July-September 1999
Kessinger Kurt Rayburn, Criminal Representation and the construction of middle-class subjectivity, 1823- 1844, University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor 1993
Kulick Don and Willson Margaret (eds), Taboo. Sex, identity, and erotic subjectivity in anthropological fieldwork, Routledge, London-New York
Libreria delle donne di Milano, Non credere di avere dei diritti, Rosenberg & Sellier, Torino 1987
Lovell Terry, Introduction, to Feminist Cultural Studies (edited by Terry Lovell), Edward Elgar, Aldershot 1995
Maingard Jacqueline, "Trends in South African documentary Film and Video: Questions of Identity and Subjectivity", Journal of southern African Studies, vol. 21, no. 4, December 1995
Mama Amina, Beyond the Masks. Race, gender and subjectivity, Routledge, London-New York
Marino Simona e Cesaro Adele Nunziante (a cura di), Soggetto femminile e scienze umane: tracce e materiali di ricerca, Clueb, Bologna 1993
Meyers Diana Tietjens, Subjection and Subjectivity. Psychoanalytic Feminism and Moral Philosophy, Routledge, New York-London 1994
Mitchell Juliet, Mad Men and Medusas, Allen Lane, London 2000
Narcisse blessé. Autoportraits contemporains 1970-2000, Textes de Jean-Michel Ribettes et Gérard Wajcman, catalogue of the exhibition held at Passage de Retz, Paris, 19 June-2 September 2000
Oliver Kelly, Subjectivity without Subjects. From Abject Fathers to Desiring Mothers, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham 1998
Palazzi Maura and Scattigno Anna, Introduzione, to Società Italiana delle Storiche 1990
Passerini Luisa, Nota introduttiva: Trasmissione e libertà, in Eadem, Storie di donne e femministe, Rosenberg & Sellier, Torino 1991
Pustianaz Marco, "Soggetto e oggetto di genere", Inchiesta, XXIV, 125, pp. 82-85
Pye Christopher, "The theater, the market, and the subject of history", ELH, 1994, 61, pp. 501-522
Scott Joan, Gender and the Politics of History, Columbia University Press, New York 1988
Shostak Marjorie, Nisa. The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, Vintage, New York 1983
Silverman Kaja, Male Subjectivity at the Margins,Routledge, New York-London 1992
Smith Sidonie, Subjectivity, Identity and the Body. Women's Autobiographical Practices in the Twentieth Century, Indiana University Press, Bloomington-Indianapolis 1993
Società Italiana delle Storiche, Discutendo di storia. Soggettività, ricerca, biografia, Rosenberg & Sellier, Torino 1990
Società Italiana delle Storiche, Generazioni. Trasmissione della storia e tradizione delle donne, Rosenberg & Sellier, Torino 1993: "Generazioni" by Silvia Evangelisti, Monica Martinat, Francesca Medioli, Cristina Papa, Carla Tonini
Sofri Adriano, Il nodo e il chiodo. Libro per la mano sinistra, Sellerio, Palermo 1995
Summerfield Penny, Reconstructing Women's Lives. Discourse and subjectivity in oral histories of the Second World War, Manchester University Press, Manchester-New York 1998
Tilly Louise, "Gender, storia delle donne e storia sociale", Passato e presente, 20-21, May-December 1989, pp. 13-38
Varikas Eleni, "Gender, Experience and Subjectivity: The Tilly-Scott Disagreement", New Left Review,
Vonk Esther and Anders Diana, An Introduction to the Next Genderation Network, in The Making of European Women's Studies (edited by Rosi Braidotti and Esther Vonk), Athena, Utrecht 2000
Woolf Virginia, Orlando, Penguin 1998 (1928)
Worthington Kim L., Self as Narrative. Subjectivity and community in contemporary fiction, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1996