The title of this post, Feminist ‘Axiomatics,’ is a term I will use to explain and articulate a specific gesture within feminist theory – mainly found in the work of Elizabeth Grosz and Sara Ahmed. This gesture consists in this: to understand that there is something specific and distinct about feminist theory – where for Grosz it is understanding the historical specificity of feminist theory as a body of work that stands apart from other competing theories (Marxism, structuralism, etc.), and for Ahmed it is a certain preoccupation with the future and the attempt to not repeat the past. Based on this initial claim, Grosz and Ahmed then make the following move: feminist theory takes as its object of critique every theoretical project claiming for itself the path toward emancipation in order to understand and deconstruct every patriarchal, sexist, and misogynistic assumption which help found the very project in question. It is in the combination of these two claims that we can come to understand the axiomatic quality of feminist theory and its relationship with other, and sometimes seen as competing, thinkers and ideas.
From Equality to Autonomy
For Grosz, this move begins in the 1960’s; specifically with the rise of Feminist Theory in universities as distinct from Feminism as a political movement. “In the sixties, feminists began to question various images, representations, ideas, and presumptions traditional theories developed about women and the feminine” (Grosz, 1986). Given the already established presence of the struggle for women’s emancipation, what was specific about this time period was the rise of what Grosz calls a ‘politics of autonomy’ as opposed to a ‘politics of equality.’ A politics of equality was based on two basic ideas: the inclusion of women into the intellectual concerns of theorists and the intellectual treatment of women as legitimate objects of inquiry as being equal to the way in which intellectuals have long since treated men as objects of study. Against these two claims, a politics of autonomy understood that equality does not go far enough since equality would only grant women and the feminine equal treatment insofar as certain aspects of the lives of women and feminine lives were like the lives of men: “The project of women’s equal inclusion meant that only women’s sameness to men, only women’s humanity and not their womanliness could be discussed” (Grosz, 1986).
The politics of autonomy, means not undertaking an emancipatory project on the basis of women’s sameness to men. Rather, “struggle for autonomy…imply the right to reject such standards and create new ones”(Grosz, 1986). It is this politics of autonomy that constituted the heart of Feminist Theory as a distinct and specific intellectual movement. By understanding that equality is the attempt to grant women the privileges enjoyed by men as long as they emulated men/masculine lives, the politics of autonomy attempt to not only reject this move but also posit the idea that the dogmatic assumption of the equivalence of maleness with rationality and womanliness with irrationality was too a bankrupt framework. Feminist Theory, understood through the lens of autonomy, then means 4 things:
- 1). Women are both the subjects and objects of knowledge – they ought to be granted the same standing as men and the lives of men in terms of theoretical inquiry as well as granting the idea that one cannot easily separate reason from desire.
2). Due to the first point, there is undertaken by Feminist Theorists a radical questioning of all methods, theory’s, and ideas in the attempt to bring under critical analysis each of their main axioms and tenants. This critical attitude which constitutes the heart of Feminist Theory brings under close scrutiny commonly held beliefs of intellectual’s of the left in order to show how even the most liberatory projects can still reinforce and perpetuate anti-feminist ideas and practices.
3). The politics of autonomy feminists ‘work through’ all objects of study, sometimes in order to subvert and detourn them.
4). All of this, plus the alternatives developed through Feminist analysis, constitutes what Grosz calls Feminist Theory.
Thus, as Grosz says, the goal of Feminist Theory is to render patriarchical theories and institutions incapable of exercising domination and power over women and the feminine. Ultimately, for Grosz, Feminist Theory as a politics of autonomy is an attempt to counter patriarchical paradigms as well as establish alternative theories and institutions based on the principles of Feminist Theory itself.
Extending Grosz’s insights into the question ‘What is Feminist Theory?’ and concluding with a politics of autonomy that takes up a critical attitude toward all ideas, theories, and intellectual projects which present themselves as emancipatory, Ahmed’s essay ‘Feminist Futures’ acts as a further reflection on the status of Feminist Theory itself. For Ahmed, writing after Butler’s Gender Trouble which brought to the attention of Feminist Theory the crisis in the category of Woman, acknowledges the differences which separate feminists of all stripes while also acknowledging that what all feminists share is a “concern with the future; that is, a desire that the future should not simply be a repetition of the past, given that feminism comes into being as a critique of, and resistance to, the ways in which the world has already taken shape” (Ahmed, 2008).
To be concerned with the future and to avoid repeating the past, Ahmed highlights the way in which she, as a feminist, can write her coming into being a feminist through various emotions: anger, pain, love, joy, wonder, and hope. Briefly, in this section, I want to reconstruct Ahmed’s main argument regarding the relationship between emotion and feminist theory/politics since I believe it is an extension of Grosz’s prior claims about the emergence and foundation of Feminist Theory as a theory in its own right. Ahmed’s main argument is as follows:
- 1). Gender permeates all aspects of social life, hence it is constitutive of our being-in-the-world in a fundamental way.
2). Feminist anger is directed towards an object that has gone by various names (patriarchy, sexism, misogyny, sexual division of labor) but shares the same quality of pain and oppression constituting women’s everyday lives.
3). Anger already implies a reading of the world, thus it begins with a reading of a specific object and moves on toward the world itself (due to point 1).
4). When Feminist anger becomes a critique of “what is,” it becomes “a critique that loses an object.” Through this loss of an object, Feminism opens up the potentials that are not found in the present organization of society.
It is from these four main claims, and read in relation to Elizabeth Grosz’s definition of Feminist Theory, that we come to understand the concept of a Feminist Axiomatics. Through the reading of Grosz and Ahmed, we can come to a set of conclusions as to what constitutes Feminist Theory as Theory and why is Feminist Theory, in this line of thinking, understood to be “axiomatic.” Simply stated: when Feminism becomes a critique without an object, a critique waged against the world as such, it becomes once again a Theory a la Grosz; that is to say, when one aims at a critique of the world as such, the task is not to name, describe, and diagnose the world (although this may be done along the way). Rather, the project of a feminist axiomatics becomes the creation and establishment of a world where gender and sexuality no longer operate as oppressive relations, no longer perpetuate and continuously solidify stratified and socialized inequality, where this project is founded on the principles of Feminist Theory itself.
Towards a Feminist Axiomatics
So, what is ‘axiomatic’ about this understanding of Feminist Theory and “Feminist” about ‘axiomatics’? The term axiomatics, indebted to the concept of the axiom, is borrowed from Alain Badiou’s own understanding of the relationship between politics and justice – where politics is the collective and voluntaristic decision making of the body politic and justice does not signify a unity or stability, but an instability, a rupture, with the current state of affairs. For Badiou, the status of the axiom in his ontology, just as it is with the status of choice in politics and metapolitics, is not something taken for granted or assumed to be true prior to investigation. Rather, axioms are only ‘true,’ or gain the status of intelligible through their application in the process of which they are a part. That is to say, the intelligibility of an axiom cannot be separated from the demonstration of its Truth: “choice has its intelligibility neither in the objective collective nor in a subjectivity of opinion. Its intelligibility is internal, in the sequential process of action, just as an axiom is intelligible only through the application of the theory that it supports” (Badiou, 2005).
In regards to Feminism and Feminist Theory, what makes Grosz’s and Ahmed’s feminism a feminist axiomatics is due to their shared investment in the idea that what is axiomatic and foundational for theory and politics does precede the process of politics itself. As Grosz writes, a feminist axiomatics is not simply one method among others. It is the search for a new method where theory is sexual, political, gender infused, and understood as historically and politically produced – that there is, at bottom, not simply truth but a ‘politics of truth:’ “feminist theory is involved in continuing explorations of and experimentation with new forms of writing, new methods of analysis, new positions of enunciation, new kinds of discourse…Instead of attempting to establish a new theoretical norm, feminist theory seeks a new discursive space, a space where women can write, read and think as women” (Grosz, 1986). In a similar sentiment, Ahmed writes at the end of her essay: “And so, everyday, we might be compelled to declare “I am/we are feminists,’ even when the meaning of the word is not decided in advance, indeed because it is not decided and because it has effects that are, as yet, not lived. So we say it, and we say it with a certain kind of love, a love that is impure, and not easy, but one that might give us life, a life that has all the vitality of the living, even if it is a life that has yet to take form” (Ahmed, 2008).
It is this idea, of a feminism that remains faithful to all the ways in which it is yet to be decided what it means to be a feminist at this specific historical, political, social, and economic situation that constitutes the axiomatics of Grosz’s and Ahmed’s feminism. For each show us, in their own way, that what is most important about “being a feminist” is the relationship between the lived experience of women and the feminine and the coupling of that experience with intellectual work. To be clear, feminists (political and/or intellectual) do not need Badiou to educate them on the various ways being a feminist constitutes a yet to be decided position with regards to the world as such. The bringing together of Badiou and Feminist Theory is an attempt to show how a thinker such as Badiou has the potential to be brought into conversation with feminist intellectuals and activists, and for this reason, must take into account the claims and method of feminist theory itself. Hence the “towards” in the title of this post: bringing together Badiou with Grosz and Ahmed is a first attempt to move toward a conversation where each can benefit, intellectually and politically, from their shared commitments to the axiomatic quality of their thought. Each thinker, in their own way, is a subject of a truth (where they are faithful to an Event – be it May ’68, the birth of Feminist Theory as a necessary counter part to feminist politics, or the commitment to a future that does not replicate the past) that aims to derive its Truth, as a subject, immanently from the situation itself. Thus, we say once more and along with Ahmed: “And so, everyday, we might be compelled to declare “I am/we are feminists,” even when it has effects that are, as yet, not lived” (Ahmed, 2008).