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Mother is not feminine

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Nettlefold, Gwen,d._2001 1997 , 'Mother is not feminine', Unspecified thesis, University of Tasmania.

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Abstract

Since "Enlightenment", much modern epistemology calls for a distinction between the subject and the object of experience.· This follows Rene Descartes' famous "cogito ergo sum", or "I think therefore I am", positing a thinking substance; the substantial "I", or the Subject of knowledge. Implicit in the definition of the Subject is an opposing object, so that the subjective "I" is able to describe some "thing". For Descartes, the actual "I" that posits is distinct from what is posited by the "I". Mediating the polarised Subject and object is that which pertains to the "I"; thinking as an activity for the subject. But thought always has an object. And that object is, qua object, different from the subject. Following Descartes, modernist epistemology depends upon this distinct opposition between subject and object.
Modern epistemology, however, suggests that situations where the subject and object cannot be clearly differentiated cannot count as genuine knowledge. The experience of pregnancy is one such situation where confusion arises between the subject and object. When I was pregnant, for example, I felt sensations that I could immediately describe as inside my belly. Yet, on reflection it is not clear whether those were sensations of myself, or of the foetus. Even then there was confusion: is the foetus part of me; can I define it as me? Is it "other"? Is it both me and "other"? Is there some boundary within me that is outer, delineating me and the foetus?
From the Cartesian viewpoint the foetus, like my body, is an object. This is because, for Descartes, while I cannot doubt that I am a thinking thing, I can doubt that I have a body. Hence my body and its states are other than me, and stand as object to my subjectivity. This objectification of pregnancy, however, suggests that I am a container for my developing foetus, under the gaze [1] of medical scrutiny (Young 1994: 45). In this gaze I, a pregnant woman, become objectified (Young 1994: 55-59).
Having "awareness of my body for its own sake" in the experience of pregnancy, I am no longer a unified subject (Young 1994). I might describe my experience as a "doubling up" of my body: as a subject, my mind might conceive two objects; the body I have always known as mine, and that of my foetus. Similarly, I might conceive my subjectivity as "split"; torn ·between my activities in the world and simultaneously focused on my body and its 'other'.
In other words, the experience of pregnancy blurs the distinction between inside and outside, self and other, subject and object. For those of us who are not pregnant, these distinctions are quite clear. If I were to describe a sensation in my neck, for instance, I could differentiate whether or not that sensation was coming from inner structures such as muscles or vertebrae, or whether that sensation was coming from the outer ·Surface of my skin. Moreover, I would assume that, because the sensation is one I have of my body, it is a sensation of my "self". This is based on my understanding of myself as one, singular identity; I do not assume that someone else inhabits my body, or that anyone else experiences what I experience of my body. I further assume that the only way anyone can know anything of my bodily experiences is by my telling them.
Most of us assume ourselves to be bounded into a unitary wholeness that constitutes each of us as a separate identity: we identify as a singular subject. It is from this position as subject, and only from this position, that we can know anything: our knowledge is founded upon this clear distinction between subject and object. In other words, the modernist epistemology is based on the centrality of knowledge to a unified notion of subjectivity.
The aim of this thesis is to decentre the modern subject of knowledge. This is an important step towards reassessing the possibility and status of knowledge derived from situations of subject/ object fusion, 'such as the experience of pregnancy. While pregnancy is particular to the biological category "women", I agree with the French Feminist Julia Kristeva, that this is by no means the only experience of subject/object fusion in ordinary human life. Rather, I demonstrate that subject/object fusion is a necessary human experience and is epistemically central to much of human life.
In chapter one I shall begin by associating the conceptualisation of sexual difference with the unclear distinction of subject and object experienced in pregnancy. The first section is particularly concerned with Iris Marion Young's depiction of the "alienation", or objectification of pregnant women in relation to Hegel's development of the modern subject. The second section depicts Georges Bataille's response to the Hegelian subject. Tracing Hegel's "closure" to Bataille's "beginning" in the second section, I present a third section. This third section ~views Bataille's reversal of the dialectic process, enabling him to move from Hegel's knowing state of "for-itself" back to tl;te immediacy of experience in the state of "in-itself". In other words, Bataille believes it possible to move out of the "light" of consciousness, into the "shadows" of the void.
Chapter two is concerned with the psychoanalytic [2] description of sexual difference. In this chapter I present Juliet Mitchell's realisation that Freud's theory is useful to feminists in· providing insight to the way we take on a sexed identity. Mitchell develops her account with reference to Jacques Lacan and his revision of the Freudian Oedipal Complex in the context of entering a speaking culture. This analysis provides insight to a relationship between the unconscious of psychoanalytic theory and our cultural conception of "femininity". Hence, returning briefly to Hegel's depiction of "transcendence", it becomes evident that as the unconscious is 'sacrificed' in the unitary subject of modernity, so is "femininity".
Chapter three outlines Kristeva's decentring of the unitary subject. In developing this argument I use Stabat Mater, Kristeva's essay on maternai experience, to defend an epistemology of "embodiment" and to revise traditional notions of gendered identity whereby the masculine subject is aligned with "culture" and the feminine embraces the body and everything of "nature".
This brings us to chapter four, "The Crowning Moment: Maternal Sovereignty", where I shall move more specifically to a discussion of childbirth. Bataille's 'lost' subject in inner experiences is, in his words, "sovereign". Here I discuss the parallels between Kristeva and Bataille's views on the possibility for a new understanding of subjectivity. I shall argue that Bataille's notion of 'Sovereignty', like Kristeva's theory of the 'subject in process', allows us to revaiue maternal experience.
In conclusion I argue that notions of femininity and masculinity that emerge from a modernist epistemology are flawed, and that it is impossible to characterise epistemic structures or kinds of experience as "masculine" or" feminine."

[1] I use the word "gaze" following Foucault's depiction of ob1ectification within medicine in The
Birth of the Clime.

[2] While it could be argued that the discipline of psychoanalysis is "theory-laden" (White 1983:
32-3,42,49), meaning for instance that psychoanalysts set out to look for symptoms of neurosis
within a particular paradigm, I will argue that the same could be said for any of the sciences.
Take the discipline of medicine for example: a doctor will always search for a pathogen as a cause
of illness before resorting to 'psycho-somatic' causes. Yet, while a pathogen may not always be the
cause of disease, the theory of path~genesis is a useful theory for understanding disease most of the
time. Similarly, I will argue that despite its shortfalls, psychoanalytic theory remains useful to
an understanding of the notion of transcendence. To its detriment though, psychoanalytic theory is
not only culturally specific, but it is also based on a white, middle class, nuclear family structure,
meanmg that it cannot be considered many way a 'universal' truth.

Item Type: Thesis - Unspecified
Authors/Creators:Nettlefold, Gwen,d._2001
Keywords: Feminist theory, Motherhood
Copyright Holders: The Author
Copyright Information:

Copyright 1997 the author - The University is continuing to endeavour to trace the copyright
owner(s) and in the meantime this item has been reproduced here in good faith. We
would be pleased to hear from the copyright owner(s).

Additional Information:

Cover title. Thesis (M.A.)--University of Tasmania, 1997. Includes bibliographical references

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