Shallow Feminism / Deep Feminism

Shallow      -           Deep

I’ve recently been trying to tease out a fundamental division within the broad church of feminism, between what I’ll call ‘deep feminism’ and ‘shallow feminism.’ Both appear to be in conflict with what they call ‘patriarchy’ (or ‘the Patriarchy’), but upon closer examination it seems to me that only deep feminism wishes to ‘smash the patriarchy’, whereas shallow feminism wishes only to change its internal structure.

To deep feminism, ‘patriarchy’ can be broadly understood as an overemphasis on structure. Deep feminism is influenced by thinkers like Derrida and Lacan, who point out that while certain structures might seem ‘real’, every structure is in fact lacking, and so ‘unreal’. In Lacan’s work, femininity can be understood as that which works against structures and masculinity, conversely, as faith in structures - or as Lacan would put it, a belief in ‘presence’ (i.e. a belief that objects really are solid). ‘Patriarchy’ occurs when we take structures too seriously and deny their inherent inconsistency. It is a denial/retreat from absence, into presence; from weakness, into strength.

Shallow feminism takes for granted the necessity and ‘reality’ of structures, and concerns itself instead with their internal ordering. To shallow feminism, ‘patriarchy’ is apparent not so much in our epistemological understanding of ‘structures’, rather, in the way in which structures are ordered so that certain groups are favoured over others.

Beneath our structures lies what Lacan calls ‘the Real’ (and what I’ve referred to in the past as ‘the Sea', which is, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy admits, "tricky to encapsulate and evades being pinned down through succinct definitions.” The Real can be understood as the negative space between our categories and definitions, and is analogous to the waveform of quantum physics - a state of possibility that precedes, or undergirds a ‘collapse’ into form. To Lacan, the Real is akin the state of nature, and it is our use of language - the tool with which we conceptualise and compartmentalise experience - that separates us from this primordial domain. ‘Real’ is how we could describe our ‘animal’ existence in the Garden of Eden, with our use of language (i.e. symbolism/structures) precipitating our fall from the Real.

I like to envisage the Real as a sea - as something liquid, in motion - upon which we float, safe within our various vessels. Within the bowels of something as substantial as a cruise liner we may even forget that we’re at sea at all, but those paying close attention can still feel the slight motion of the waves beneath (a stray iceberg helps to provide a more vivid reminder). The sea is a constant threat to our safely anchored structures.

We can distinguish our two forms of feminism by their attitude towards the Real. Deep feminism seeks an exposure to the Real, whereas shallow feminism wants to be protected from it; and it is in this sense that we can say that shallow feminism wants to preserve the shell of ‘patriarchy’, which acts as a protection from the anxiety-provoking complexity of the Real. A confrontation with the Real - a plunge into cold, dark water - is, after all, more than most people can take. It’s a niche activity, and most aren't well suited to it. Those that seek the real tend to have a relatively unique constitution, and proclivities - artists, philosophers, poets, mystics. For the uninitiated, exposure to the Real can result in nihilism - in fact, ‘over-exposure to the Real’ (or ‘over-exposure to complexity’) could serve as a good definition for nihilism.

Todd McGowan suggests that ‘feminism is the recognition that nothing lies beneath, and the subsequent embrace of the nothing-beneath.’ But embracing the nothing-beneath is a tall order, and a risky one at that. An artist may eschew rules, boundaries, order, and convention, but most people can’t afford to.

And perhaps this is what our deep/shallow division comes down to: deep feminism is the preserve of the esoteric, the initiated; and shallow feminism the preserve of the exoteric and profane.

Mystics like Lacan may seek an exposure to the Real, and a radical reevaluation of the notion of ‘structure’ itself, but most feminists take for granted the necessity of some form of ‘patriarchy’ and seek rather an equal footing within it, or a shake-up of the established order.

While Lacan is criticized for constituting sexual difference on the basis of the phallic function and subjectivity on the basis of paternal authority, what the Lacanian project does provide for feminism is not the idea of a malleable culture, susceptible to human mastery, as distinct from a fixed nature that escapes it, but the more disconcerting idea that human mastery, of ourselves, of others, of nature and culture, is itself illusory.

Rather than the promise of a rational progress toward greater and greater equality, respect for individual difference, and universality, Lacan's insights, like Freud's, point toward the precariousness of identity and social bonds and to the instability of the drives that attach us to one another.

In addition to the distinctiveness of his method, focus, and insight, this willingness to grapple with the limits of self-mastery is one reason why Lacan has been taken as an innovative and amenable resource for some feminist theorists. In exposing the inadequacies of social or empirical accounts of sexual difference, identity, and the power relations built upon them, Lacan confronts the fundamental structures at the root of empirical socio-historical circumstances.

[Emily Zakin]
‘Psychoanalytic Feminism’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[…] for Irigaray, both Beauvoir and Freud fail to address sexual difference insofar as they retain a singular notion of masculine subjectivity, Freud because he presumes the libido is always masculine, and Beauvoir because she reckons the aim of women's emancipation as equality with men (for instance by concluding the Second Sex with a call to brotherhood and seeming, arguably, to be calling for women to assimilate to masculine norms of selfhood). 

Irigaray rejects the project of equality, since ‘equality’ can only ever mean equality to men, and proposes instead doubling the notion of subjectivity in line with the subject's own self-division.

Irigaray also challenges the Lacanian idea of the law of the father and the phallic signifier, pillorying the way in which natural birth has been assigned to maternity while cultural birth is assigned to paternity, equating the woman-mother with body and the man-father with language and law, and relegating the bodily process of parturition (maternity) to mute nature while valorizing the symbolic process of legitimation (paternity) as constitutive of civilization.

Irigaray's affirmation of sexual difference does not mean affirming the feminine traits that have been ascribed to women, since these are actually, in her view, the traits of sexual indifference, defined only with reference to men. Sexual difference has yet to appear and it is her task to bring it into being.

Unlike Irigaray, who wants to retrieve the pre-Oedipal period in order to reclaim feminine genealogies, Kristeva wants only to redescribe it in order to reassess its import for individuation and creative self-transformation. She takes infantile matricide (separation from the mother) to be a necessary condition of subjectivity and not a remnant of patriarchal violence.

Where Irigaray aims to introduce sexual difference into the social contract and the domain of law and rights, Kristeva proposes that we introduce self-discord.

[Emily Zakin]
‘Psychoanalytic Feminism’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Irigaray wants a stake in civilisation, but a deeper critique would question the inherent 'patriarchal' assumptions that give rise to civilisation in the first place. 

In wanting to introduce 'sexual difference', which has yet to appear in history, Irigaray seems to chase the impossible, an ill-formed fantasy.

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