What is it that makes readers love and return to the works of particular writers? What is it that convinces us that there is always something more there, that the question whose proper phrasing we seek lurks just out of hearing in the text? This work has been an attempt to approach these questions with regard to the works of Nietzsche and Heidegger.
I had known for a long time that the way Nietzsche wrote—passionately, with his blood, laughing, and sometimes sensing a god dancing through him—meant that he was unlike any other philosopher I knew. One could almost chart the waves of revulsion, ecstasy, abjection, and awe as they coursed through his texts, and understand him as a lover, a lover of language, but also of feeling, of danger and joy, of pleasure and pain. I also saw him as a player, one who would have liked to dance through life as through a game, a serious game to be sure, one with ultimate stakes, but no less a game for that. He was willing to be outrageous, self-contradictory, absurd, offensive, suggestive, inconclusive, and seductive. All of these traits I identified with “the feminine,” unaware of the injustice I did both to men and to women when I thought of this term as having to do exclusively with actual women. I still think that Nietzsche’s willfulness and irrationality are related to the “feminine,” but now I see this as the feminine in language.
In the same way, Heidegger’s work had intrigued me, and convinced me that he too was in touch with “the feminine,” though in a way very different from Nietzsche. His work, even as early as Being and Time, seemed to me to be on the track of a new way of thinking that hoped to analyze the conditions and structures of everyday life, instead of abstracting and etherealizing. The later works, filled with imagery and poetic discourse, seemed inspired by an elusive, tantalizing otherness, an otherness to which steadfast devotion was due, and which might even consent to play if properly approached. But again, aside from classically or traditionally “feminine” imagery, did it make sense to see a real connection between that which Heidegger was pursuing and “the feminine”?
Other late-nineteenth-century and twentieth-century thinkers held out similar attractions. Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein especially seemed to me to invite interpretation in relation to the “feminine.” But how was I to specify what I meant by this term? What precisely was it that linked these writers together, and made me feel addressed not only as a thinker but as one on the track of a particular disruptive, unsettling, and playful experience of reading? How does writing of a certain kind bring into question not only “concepts” and “ideas” but the very identity and security of the reader him/herself? And again, how is this experience related to “the feminine”?
The key that finally allowed me at least to begin to unravel this complex of questions was the work of the “new French feminists.”1 French feminisms, although they cannot be subsumed into a singular “feminism,” do have in common a sophisticated philosophical background. They have come out of French women’s experience in seminars on phenomenology, structuralism, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, and Marxism. They share an awareness of the various dimensions of what Ricoeur calls the “hermeneutics of suspicion.”2 Convinced of the necessity for analyses of false consciousness of the kinds proposed by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, they seek to extend the range of these hermeneutic techniques to encompass the situation of women, and thus embark on their project with a set of assumptions and awarenesses that differ from those of many American feminists.
One difference that seems especially crucial to me is the constant consciousness, on the part of some of them at least, of the temptation to make a new “idol” or “religion” out of Woman or feminism. The long struggle against metaphysics will have been for nought, and will need to be fought all over again, if a naive positivity is allowed to dominate feminist thinking. As Kristeva says:
The belief that “one is a woman” is almost as absurd and obscurantist as the belief that “one is a man.” I say “almost” because there are still many goals which women can achieve: freedom of abortion and contraception, day-care centers for children, equality on the job, etc. Therefore we must use “we are women” as an advertisement or slogan for our demands. On a deeper level, however, a woman cannot “be”; it is something which does not even belong in the order of being. It follows that a feminist practice can only be negative, at odds with what already exists so that we may say “that’s not it” and “that’s still not it.”3
This “negativity” of some French feminist practices links them with the hermeneutics of suspicion and with a position of marginality which is indispensable for critical thinking.
New French feminisms are also acutely conscious of questions of language and discourse. They vary widely in terms of the positions they define on such questions; Kristeva’s position stands out among them as one that is eminently well suited for application to diverse sorts of texts.
Kristeva, as we have seen, differentiates between two distinct “dispositions” in language, two forces at work and at play across texts and speech. These she names the “symbolic” and the “semiotic.” She analyzes how these dispositions are developed in the language of individuals as they mature as subjects, and she proposes that each of them is distinctively associated, in patriarchal cultures, with one or another gender. The “symbolic” disposition is associated with the reign or realm of the “Father,” and thus with all the prohibitions and social arrangements of patriarchal society. The “semiotic” dimension, more instinctually driven, becomes associated with the “mother” (or, as we have seen, with whoever fills this role), and thus with “the feminine.” It becomes possible, following Kristeva’s schema, to examine texts for evidences of the intrusion or interruption of semiotic effects into the discourse.
This is the method I have chosen to employ in my reading of texts by Nietzsche and Heidegger. The extent to which feminine imagery in these texts accompanies outbursts of semiotic effects has supported the double focus of my original thesis, which asserts both that Nietzsche and Heidegger were fascinated and drawn by the feminine in language, and that Kristeva’s theoretical framework is a useful hermeneutic for illuminating the evidences of this concern.
Sade wrote: “Unless he becomes his mother’s lover, let him not bother to write, for we shall not read him.”4 We do read Nietzsche and Heidegger, and for the very reason proposed by Sade. Each became his “mother’s” lover, the lover of language, and especially of the semiotic, “feminine” dimension in language, la mère qui jouit. Working through the religious situation of their and our times, they coped with the death of God the Father, not by replacing him with a Mother Goddess, but by seeking in the matrix of their own linguistic constitution the source and aim of their jouissance.
If identity, self, and subject are constructed within and in relation to a linguistic matrix, which itself is subject to differential forces such as the symbolic and semiotic dispositions, is it not incumbent upon us to avoid assuming that we know what it means to “be” a “woman,” or to “be” a “man”? It is to be hoped that the mutual influence of feminism and postmodern philosophies might redound to the benefit of each; perhaps it is in the particular field of the philosophy of religion where this reciprocal effect might first begin to be manifest.
The project also has an ethical dimension. As we begin to learn how it is that women have functioned as the “other” for metaphysical thought, and to hear in the language of the “destroyers” of metaphysics the probably unconscious but nonetheless striking identification of the feminine with the semiotic dimension, it becomes possible to learn that the self is always also an “other.” We are always (at least) doubled, and divided, and left with the conundrum of how to cope with our awareness of that reality. Kristeva’s plea is that we stop repressing this dividedness and projecting “otherness” outward. We need to recognize and in some way delight in our condition: “[To] hear in language—and not in the other, nor in the other sex—the gouged-out eye, the wound, the basic incompleteness that conditions the infinite quest of signifying concatenations. That amounts to joying [jouir] in the truth of self-division.”5 Nietzsche and Heidegger sometimes heard, in language, that “basic incompleteness,” and “joyed in the truth of self-division.” When they did, I tried to hear it too.