From blank spaces

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From blank spaces identity, agency, and discursive landscapes
Holtz, Valeria Rhae
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Identity (Psychology) ( lcsh )
Group identity ( lcsh )
Agent (Philosophy) ( lcsh )
Discourse analysis ( lcsh )
Agent (Philosophy) ( fast )
Discourse analysis ( fast )
Group identity ( fast )
Identity (Psychology) ( fast )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )


Includes bibliographical references (leaves 91-94).
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Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Statement of Responsibility:
by Valeria Rhae Holtz.

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University of Colorado Denver
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Auraria Library
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Full Text
Valeria Rhae Holtz
B.A., University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, 2005
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities

Holtz, Valeria Rhae (Master of Humanities)
From Blank Spaces: Identity, Agency, and Discursive Landscapes
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Candice Shelby
We are conditioned to see the world in terms of a simplistic
mode of discourse; a way of thinking and communicating that
encourages us to conceive of ourselves and others in reference to
absolutes and false dichotomies. This conceptual framework makes it
nearly impossible to make conscientious changes in the world
because, as advocates for social justice have argued for decades, this
outlook is in many ways responsible for creating and perpetuating
oppressive conditions. We must address this tendency toward dualistic
thinking alongside the larger issue of subjective agency before we can
hope to make lasting changes in the world. This paper addresses
these problems by locating subjective agency in the spaces created by
dialectical impasses.
Agency is not literally external to the individual subject. Rather,
agency is like an emergent property of the mind. It is the result of
thinking through limitations imposed by a simplistic frame of
understanding, and is operative when we think between arguments in

contest and find new conceptual connections. When we reinterpret the
world, we transform those aspects of it that are clearly dependent on
the ways we describe them.
Agency is always linked to the material world in this way, but the
connection is tenuous. In the same way an object never exactly
coincides with our descriptions of it, this portrayal of agency positions
the embodied subject along and through the horizon where the ontic
and the transcendental-ontological meet. The subject is what it lacks,
and when it is engaged in thinking and making new connections, the
contemplative subject is a consciousness of poverty and a metaphor
for the subject as a moving target. That is, it is a figuration of
subjectivity, as opposed to a depiction of the subject.
This paper refers to contemporary and historical texts to
examine agency, social identity, privilege, and oppression from a wide
variety of perspectives; and demonstrates both the need to locate
agency and the value of figurative thinking. Finally, this paper lays the
groundwork for an ethic that helps assure the subjective agent is also a
moral agent.

This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates
thesis. I recommend its publication.

I dedicate this thesis to my daughter, my mother, and my
grandmother. My daughter, Marilyn Raven, offered me a level of
patience and understanding well beyond that which I thought I could
reasonably expect. I am eternally grateful to her for being a constant
source of inspiration. Whatever I do, she is with me.
Though my mother and grandmother passed away before I
began work on this project, their ideas, passions, and insights are the
framework of all my ideas. As I stumble through life, somewhere
between the past and the future, they still guide my every step. From
my mother, Claudia Jeanne Shetrone, I learned compassion, hope,
and the importance of heritage. From my grandmother, Lillian Odessa
Long, I learned strength in the face of adversity and enduring love in
the midst of sorrow.

Deepest thanks to the members of my committee for their
insight and support. While all of my experiences in the Master of
Humanities program have helped shape my ideas, these three
professors had the greatest influence. Words fail to capture the value
of Candice Shelbys encouragement and support of my interest in the
history of philosophy, to say nothing of her clear faith in my abilities.
Her wide range of influences and interests is awe-inspiring, and I have
tried to follow her example by reading widely and looking for insight
wherever it may hide. Pompa Banerjees absolutely thorough
scholarship coupled with her keen wit and remarkable insight made
studying with her an experience I shall never forget. I aspire to the
meticulous standard of excellence she sets in her work. Finally,
Margaret Woodhull has been my advisor since I started the program. I
have tried and failed on several occasions to live up to her example of
quiet contemplation balanced with strength of conviction. I consider
myself lucky to have had the opportunity to work with each one of
them, and hope that this thesis does justice to the influence they have
had on my thoughts.

I would also like to thank the International Margaret Cavendish
Society, the most welcoming professional organization I have ever had
the good fortune to be a member of. In particular, my thanks to Brandie
Sigfried and Sara Mendelson for their ongoing encouragement and
support. Without a doubt, if I had not been a part of the 2009
conference in Corvallis, Oregon this project would not be complete
today. Everyone who read a paper or talked with me between sessions
inspired me to keep working on this project.
And finally, my thanks to Alice Sowaal and Eileen ONeill for
their assistance in my research on Mary Astell, Rebecca Laroche for
introducing me to early modern studies, and everyone who participated
in the Knapsack Institute in Colorado Springs, June 2009.

1. FINDING OURSELVES.......................................1
Mind the Gap.......................................11
Turning the Discourse Inside Out...................17
A Paradox in Location..............................22
The Conceptual Emptiness of Property...............26
Individual Property and Oppression.................31
Unto the Present...................................40
2. CROSSROADS..............................................45
Life on the Border.................................45
Mapping the Terrain................................47
The Poverty of Agency............................. 51
Through a Glass, Darkly............................56
On Compromise......................................60
Transient Subjectivity as Poverty in Motion........65
A Figurative Philosophy............................73
Figuring the Past..................................83
Changing the Discourse: It Ends at the Beginning...86

We are all products of our culture, and yet we know ourselves
as individuals; subjective agents capable of thinking outside the
psycho-social-linguistic landscapes we are part of. We know our ideas
are informed by our experiences as members of a variety of different
social groups family, friends, religion, class, etc. and yet it is easy
to conceive of ourselves as something more than that which we were
raised to be: more than just the products of our cultures. We are
capable of not only understanding the social milieu we are part of: we
actually have the power to change it.
This ability to impact the world around us the world that
created us is not self-evident. This apparent distinction between self
and other, or individual and culture, is heavily dependent on our
subjective, or intuitive, experiences of individuality. It is easy enough to
forget that the words I write, speak, and even think existed before I
was able to understand, much less use them. Yet I must admit that

these words are not my own; they are part of a language that I only
recently began to participate in, a language that tempers and shapes
my ability to understand the world around me. Language connects me
to those who came before me as well as to those I now share this
world with. Each word I write is full of meaning that transcends the
literal definition ascribed to it; meaning that evokes emotions, recalls
memories, and inspires responses in each person who reads it. How
can I defend my sense of individuality as a fundamental fact of my
existence when I admit that I am connected by and through language
to so many different people, emotions, ideas, and experiences? And
yet I know I can make changes in the world.
Agency, or the ability to consciously impact ourselves and our
environments outside of the deterministic chain of physical or psycho-
social cause and effect, is like an uncharted territory that exists
somewhere between individuals and the worlds that create us.
Mapping this terrain is a daunting task, and for those of us who belong
to social groups that are systemically underprivileged or oppressed the
stakes are high. Agency is power for those who claim it; power and the
license to hope. Locating agency is a necessary prerequisite to
changing the conditions of oppression.

That oppression exists at all should complicate individualistic
defenses of metaphysical freedom. It functions as the impetus of
individual ethical action for Simone de Beauvoir, who took the paradox
of human existence as the premise of her ethics. We live only to die,
and assert [ourselves] as a pure internality against which no external
power can take hold, and yet [we] also [experience ourselves] as
thing[s] crushed by the weight of other things.1 The fundamental
ambiguity of our existence (which includes but is not limited to this
disjunction between self/other, existence/annihilation) leads us to try
and conceal it; to make what is complex seem simple, and what is
unjustifiable seem necessary. In a vain attempt to assert ourselves as
something solid, something unambiguous, the exigencies of action
force [us] to treat one another as instruments or obstacles, as means.2
The only ethical way to be free, to be liberated, is to fight for the
liberation of all. And since, for Beauvoir, freedom is the source from
which all significations and all values spring, to will our freedom is to
will ourselves moral.3
If, as I have asserted, agency is the power to make changes
and ending oppression is the aim of all moral acts, then agency has a
1 Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, 7.
2 Ibid., 9.
3 Ibid., 24.

complicated relationship to our divided experience of individual
subjectivity and our creation by and through those things we
experience as external to us. Oppression emphasizes this complexity,
for oppression is primarily experienced as a poverty of agency. Clearly,
the power to make changes in the world is connected to both our
individual capacity to do so and to the social weight of our individual
acts. Poverty of agency is the absence of hope, as opposed to its
license. It is an emptiness that is full of meaning, for this lack of agency
is the fundamental concern of liberatory acts. It is the blank space
through which, and because of which, freedom becomes possible.
This emptiness, or vacant space, is largely but not completely
discursive. We experience a division between the internal and external
aspects of ourselves not because there is a clear and irrefutable line of
demarcation between the two, but because we have been taught to
treat the distinction between internal and external as fundamental to
our existence. This is, as we have seen, an oversimplification of the
situation. To be sure, human existence is paradoxical; we are certainly
born only to die, and cruelly left with the rational capacity to
contemplate our own finitude. But that we should accomplish this
macabre contemplation through language language that frames
these thoughts and connects us to others who might also participate in

this morbid pastime should not necessarily strike us as paradoxical.
Inward and outward is only one possible way of figuring our
relationships to ourselves in a world of others who co-create us. It is
through our insistence upon clinging to one as opposed to the other
that oppression comes about. The oversimplification appears to be
dualistic we are either determined or we are free but as convincing
as it seems, the division is still false. We need not limit ourselves by
positing that our actions be either entirely self-determined or entirely
determined by our physical or psycho-social engagement with the
world: our existence and the actions we take are clearly both of these
things. What we need is a sophisticated way of making sense of this
web of connections we are all enmeshed in: connections between
people, regions, experiences, and histories; conceptual connections,
languages and words; bodies and all those things that sustain them.
To be human is to be complex. We exist because of and
according to the cultural norms and traditions of our birth and rearing,
and yet the significance of these experiences and relationships is
forever shifting. In the first chapter, I offer an incomplete account of this
movement in our understanding and experience of social identity and
agency. I want to highlight the inadequacy of the dualisms and false
dichotomies we often employ, and demonstrate the conceptual

connections inherent in Western culture, especially in the English-
speaking world, between freedom, social identity, and property
ownership. This relationship is both conceptual and historical, and it
contributes to a confused sort of individualism that posits a strict yet
unproven conformity of objects and persons to themselves a
conformity to self that serves to conceal the ambiguous condition of
human experience. I will establish this as a mistake born of a tendency
in the dominant mode of discourse to favor dualism and the generation
of false dichotomies.
The mode of discourse which favors division, fragmentation,
and a simple dialectic is alluring because it privileges presence over
absence. It asserts what is by simply failing to address what is not,
which causes it to inadvertently create absences in hidden spaces
between arguments. It favors false dichotomies so long as they favor
those people in positions of privilege while encouraging them to ignore
areas of interest to those who are not. It also encourages those who
reap the rewards of the status quo to forget the importance of seeking
out the perspectives of other people. This mode of discourse
erroneously figures some perspectives as having been positively
explained when they have not, so long as these explanations serve the
interests of those in power. The dominant mode of discourse, then, is

phallogocentric in the Derridian sense of the word: it is characterized
by rhetorical power and privilege.
And it is pervasive. As I demonstrate in Chapter One, this mode
of discourse is tied to and supports an historical and ideological
connection between property and freedom. This conceptual connection
is, in turn, directly related to issues around marriage, labor, slavery,
hierarchy, class, race, sexual orientation, and gender, among other
things. It is this conceptual cluster that makes that this mode of
discourse so powerful. This would not be problematic if the conditions
it helps create and sustain were not in service only to those who wield
the power to perpetuate them. While discursive control over the social
significance of identities is not only the source of oversimplification and
oppression, it does entice those with privilege to be rather oblivious
about it. The trappings of privilege are normalized by the discourse in
such a way that only those who do not experience the benefits notice
they exist at all.
Fortunately, there is a way out of the apparent impasse. The
spaces between ideas in conflict can function as paths through
misleading dichotomies. If these false representations of imaginary
conflicts do all of the things I have claimed they do conceal
complexity, create and reinforce systems of privilege and oppression,

and suppress opportunities for real change then they simultaneously
support and enforce a splitting or fragmentation of subjective aims for
individuals who are impacted by them. I examine this relationship in
the second chapter, but for now it is important to note that the splitting
of aims happens differently for those whose interests are privileged by
the discourse than it does for those whose interests are not. Discourse
that disingenuously favors what is also encourages us to overlook what
is not, that is, we are urged by the terms of the discussion to ignore or
forget the concerns of others. And since social identity is complex, it is
not only possible but likely that one aspect of an individuals identity is
privileged by an argument while others are set aside or obscured. This
often happens in situations where we are working with others who
share some aspect of our social identity particularly if we are working
with them to fight oppression. This exercise of agency is a practice in
identity politics, and nearly always requires some degree of splitting or
fragmentation on the level of the individual subject. In advancing the
interests of one aspect of my identity, I suppress the rest. And when
we are fragmented by the dominant concerns of the groups we are
involved with, when we favor simple aspects of ourselves by employing
an oversimplified discursive mode, deeper oppression and
marginalization may ensue.

The fragmentation or splitting of subjective aims, then, is the
first indication that there is a space between the arguments in contest,
or a path through the clash of arguments issued in the dominant mode.
This space is created by an oversimplification that results in a false
dichotomy, or contradiction, that effectively negates the perspectives of
those aspects of our identities that are not privileged. Following
Simone de Beauvoir, the ethical mandate here is to ask if the terms of
a discussion require this sort of fragmentation, of either us or of others,
in order to reach resolution. If they do, we must then ask what needs to
be connected in order to prevent or repair damage inflicted by what
amounts to a flaw in the way we convey ideas. Once we have named
the ways that the problem we are presented with appears to us as a
self-evident dilemma, we can start to understand the ways it limits our
freedom by falsely framing our understanding of ourselves in the world.
This process of deconstructing and reconnecting concepts is the path
through the negation, or space between competing arguments
operating in the phallogocentric mode.
And it is a process; an intellectual movement that is
characterized by recognizing and embracing the vacancy of the space
between. Here I am following the lead of feminist postmodernists like
Rosi Braidotti and Donna Harraway in presenting this process as a

figuration, or a politically informed [image] that portray[s] complex
interaction levels of subjectivity.4 The figuration of the transient subject
I develop in Chapter Two is designed to help empower the reader to
sort through, dismantle, and re-imagine the conceptual cluster of ideas
associated with poverty and property. The figuration of transience is a
way of thinking through that which is positively asserted. The
figuration is only an intellectual vehicle through which new conceptual
connections can be sought and made. Still, that it does not exist in and
of itself is a nice reminder that it represents that which is important, but
sometimes treated as though it does not exist at all: that is, the
experiences and testimonies of disadvantaged and marginalized
Though I am making use of a figuration, a distinctly
contemporary conceptual device, the conditions for what I call transient
subjectivity have always existed. And the inquiries these conditions
sometimes inspire never fail to surprise. In the late seventeenth
century, Margaret Cavendish stared down the passages created by
clashes between mind and matter, gender and authority, and even
sanity and Bedlam. With her aims split three separate ways, she saw
her way fit to argue toward a kind of liberty that transcends even death
4 Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects, 4.

- the very source of our ambiguous human condition. She did this by
embracing matter; that by which we are condemned, as determined
creatures, to eternally be the effects of previous causes. Cavendishs
figurative philosophy is relayed at the end of the second chapter as an
example of transient subjectivity at work: ethical action giving rise to
freedom from the crushing weight of a flawed way of thinking.
Mind the Gap
It is an unfortunate fact of human existence that many of the
beliefs that get us through our daily lives go unexamined. Most of
these beliefs appear, upon closer examination, to have been premised
on false divisions between overly simplistic categories. For instance,
most of us are taught from a very young age that human beings can be
divided up into two basic groups: boys and girls. And perhaps this
explanation is an age-appropriate simplification of the variety of social
and physical configurations that actually exist. We all have to start
somewhere. But problems arise when we fail to examine these early
lessons, and instead demand that others to live up to our expectations
of them. The basic descriptive statement, people are either boys or
girls, becomes, people can only be boys or girls. When our
descriptions of the world are overly simplistic, we risk clinging to ideas
that are steeped in what amounts to a false dichotomy.

These are not always easy to identify as such. For instance, one
of the primary ways in which we are taught to experience the world lies
in our distinction between internality and externality. On one hand, we
know that our experiences are formed and informed by our cultural
heritage, and on the other we experience the world, think, and act as
individual agents. The apparent line that divides cultural and subjective
experience poses a problem, for if, as Bishop Berkeley had it, to be is
to be perceived the words internal and external only partially describe
the situation. The presenting dichotomy reveals its inherent falsity if we
can grant that this third option is viable: our experiences are tempered
and formed by the way others see us and by the way we see others.
The most pressing question, then, becomes, how can a person,
or a group of persons, especially if they are oppressed racially,
ethnically, or economically, come to have an identity independent of
how they are seen?5 That our experiences are shaped by the world
around us to the extent that we are as we appear to those around us,
we can hardly hope to change the conditions that led to that perception
without first changing it. Andrea Nye worries that if [we] try to escape
established meanings altogether, a terrifying vacuum opens before
[us], and posits that somehow new meaning must be created, but it is
5 Nye, Philosophy and Feminism at the Border, 62.

not clear what its source can be.6 In essence, we are either trapped by
our intersubjective existence, or we are independent agents with a
gaping hole where our social context should be.
This problem has two distinct dimensions. First, there is the
issue of the simplistic division between individual and culture. Second,
there is the problem of establishing identity independently of socially
ascribed meaning and significance. On the first problem, if, as some
post-structuralists suggest, individuality is performed within the
culturally established symbolic order, wherein lies the possibility of
subjective agency? That is, if we merely act out parts assigned to us,
in what way can we say that we are acting independently? For her
part, Judith Butler derives her ideas on gender as performance from a
radical interpretation of the phenomenological doctrine of constitution
that takes the social agent as an object rather than the subject of
constitutive acts.7 This means that which I take as my self- my
thoughts, tastes, consciously chosen beliefs and actions is really an
object acted upon by the forces which produce what amounts to an
intersubjective sense of self. / am the product of my surroundings, and
my actions are really performances proper to what I am given to
believe about my surroundings.
6 Ibid.
7 Butler, Judith, "Performative Acts," 97.

Words fail to fully articulate this situation we find ourselves in
because, for Butler, words create it. Language surrounds and explains
us, which means that, to a certain extent, reality can be consciously
created. This ability to change the world around us by altering the
language we use to describe and interpret it is agency. As Nye puts it,
the problem for human agency of any kind is to establish freedom
within established uses of words, to show that uses are not necessarily
monolithic, that rules for speech acts can be broken to create new
meanings.8 Here identity is predicated on language, or rather, the
performance of established discursive meanings and definitions. But it
is also more than this: Butler's poststructuralist critique of language
offers hope that these meanings, and thus reality, can be changed
because, as Nye sums up Butlers position, a [words] use is always
implicated in the improper use that defines it, or on the fact that names
never fit anyone exactly.9 By using the slippery relationship between
words and concepts to our advantage, and thus making conscious and
conscientious mistakes in our use of language, real change becomes
8 Nye, Philosophy and Feminism at the Border, 70.
9 Ibid.

Still, language is not the sum total of reality, even if it does help
constitute it. Certainly a distinction must be made between a discursive
possibility and a lived experience. Nye tellingly notes that the
philosophical problem remains invisible from the vantage of those who
inhabit privileged identities,10 because marks of oppression are often
only visible when they are lived. In other words, they are only visible to
those who embody them because individual lived experiences of
people without the discursive authority to universalize, generalize, and
create the discursive landscape are not figured into the illusion of
uniformity such arguments entail. The testimonies of the oppressed are
figured as anomalous, and their embodied experiences become minor
and ignorable exceptions to the rule.
This leads directly to the second problem: how can we establish
even performative identities especially when our identities are
marked by oppression outside of those meanings prescribed by
culture? Put another way, if we are that which describes us, and our
identities are performances of culturally established meanings
constrained by historical context, from whence does the power to de-
and re-construct those concepts come? According to Cornel West,
cultures are, in part, what human beings create (out of antecedent
10 Ibid.

fragments of other cultures) in order to convince themselves not to
commit suicide.11 We need to locate an agency that is somehow
connected to our lived social experiences that is capable of making
that decision. Butler notes that agency is necessary in the process of
identity formation, and she figures it as the process of rendering such
possibilities determinate.12 But that agency exists as a process is not
enough to trace the progress of that process from recognizing the need
for change, through change in the use and discursive significance of
language, and finally to alterations in lived experiences.
Returning to the invisibility of the problem from the perspective
of privilege, what role might the ability to see the problem play in
situating a location for subjective agency? Maria Lugones framed this
issue in terms of the thickness or transparency of the social identities
in question. A transparent identity is easy to conceptualize; that is, the
social identity in question is easily separated from other signifiers and
is hegemonic with the overall needs and desires of the group. When
people are made aware of their otherness in the group, and are,
relegated to the margins in the politics of intragroup contestation,
then their identities are thick relative to that group.13 Lugones claims
11 West, Race Matters, 24.
12 Butler, "Performative Acts," 99.
13 Maria Lugones, "Purity, Impurity, and Separation," 339.

that persons with transparent identities are unaware of the differences
between themselves and the groups they are part of, and thus are
unaware of the marginalization and erasure of the experiences and
voices of thick members, whose concerns are seen as addenda to
those of the transparent members. In that way, thick members of
several oppressed groups become composites of the transparent
members of those groups.14 Agency is a privilege of transparency in
this case, as people with thick identities are coerced into putting the
concerns of the transparent at the forefront of any movement for
Turning the Discourse Inside Out
The invisibility of the problem from the perspective of privilege is
directly connected to the falseness of the divisions assumed in the
identities of the thick members of any group. A better way of
conceptualizing issues of identity is certainly needed. Yet if the
powerful create the discursive landscape through which we frame and
analyze problems, and the specific form these analyses take are
paralogisms premised on the assumption of a uniformity of experience,
then the vantage of privilege is nearly impervious to attempts to
change the terms of discourse.
14 Ibid., 340.

In returning to the initial question, we ask again: how can
oppressed persons establish independent, subjective identities through
or from which they are able to act? Slajov Zizek poses an interesting
re-framing of the question in terms of the shifting of perspective that
takes place as we focus first on the individual, then the culture, and
then back to the individual, as though it were a trick of perception:
The problem [...] is not 'how to jump from the individual to the
social level [or visa versa]: the problem is: how should the
external-impersonal socio-symbolic order of institutionalized
practices and beliefs be structured, if the subject is to retain his
sanity, his normal functioning?'^
In this quote we see a shift from the presumed ambivalence of
subjective identity to a questioning of the positive existence of the
social order the individual exists within. In other words, we have shifted
our perspective on what is ontologically prior to the question from the
social order to the individual.
Thus, we feel we have achieved a more complete vision of the
question. The false dichotomy is can be summed up by holding the
idea that individuals are created by culture against the idea that culture
is created by individuals. If Nye imagined an abyss in this meeting
between individual and culture, Zizek sees the very heart of the
slippage between the ontic and the transcendental-ontological whole. 15
15 Zizek, The Parallax View, 6.

What is still missing is an account of what is implied by this conflict:
what it lacks. I will return to that in a moment.
For now, it is important to fully flesh out Zizeks perspective on
the issue. Notice that Zizeks reframing of the question flatly denies
any agency beyond that of the individual. This denial led him to
conclude that:
[...] when we reflect upon our ethnic roots, we engage in a
private use of reason, constrained by contingent dogmatic
presuppositions: that is to say, we act as 'immature' individuals,
not as free human beings who dwell in the dimension of the
universality of reason.1
If, as I have claimed, privilege hides differences, or encourages us to
push them to the side in the interest of the illusion of unity, then Zizeks
conclusion that private uses of reason denote the forfeit of freedom
only shows that Zizek, himself, is writing from a position of privilege. To
wit, one must either reason according to Zizeks terms or simply be
wrong. Even so, Zizeks framing of the issue does not exclude anyone.
Those who disagree are assumed by the larger whole, though only as
backwards, wrong-headed, and lesser creatures. The whole of the
situation is imagined as a hierarchy in which Zizek is right, and those
who disagree are deemed puerile and unable to act freely as mature
16 Ibid., 6.

When Zizek makes this claim about other autonomous subjects
he necessarily denies his own inability to transcend his situated
perspective. That is, when Zizek (or anyone else operating from a
position of privilege) infantilizes the perspective of his opponents by
way of deeming their arguments unworthy of entertaining, he does
precisely the opposite of what he intends to do: he absorbs culture and
social influence into himself even as he rejects the validity of its
influence. This essentially amounts to a splitting of aims along the
continuum of subjective experience; a situation that I will connect to
oppression a bit later. In this particular situation the splitting is easily
ignored because the illusion of unity is preserved. Thus, the set of
circumstances under which the privileged person is rewarded for not
noticing this fragmentation of the subjective experience is created and
perpetuated. If that person should happen to notice the split-
separation of subjective aims, acting on it might mean forfeiting the
It would seem that we get nowhere in establishing the possibility
of agency, much less locating it, by constantly appealing to a
discursive mode that favors absolutes. There is no possibility of
escape from these conceptual impasses, or from the corollary
problems that bubble up from the cracks between competing

arguments, so long as we adhere to the privileged mode of discourse
that gives rise to them in the first place. Nye sums up the situation as
Internal constraints constitute a man or a woman, and cannot be
rejected in heroic existential acts of self-will. [...] It is clear that
sexual, gender, and racial oppression goes deeper than legal
systems or economies that impose external restraints and
barriers on rational exercises of will. To be meaningful, to be my
or our action, action must come from authentic selves, from real
desires, beliefs, convictions, and values. But if subjectivity is
constituted in internalized social norms, in psychological
development, or in structures of language, then I, as myself,
never act or speak. Society speaks, the unconscious speaks,
language speaks.17
In a word, Butler, Nye, and Zizek are all interested in locating and
situating subjective agency within the larger socio-cultural context.
Zizek did go on to describe the conflict as a whole (which serves to
maintain the same illusion of unity mentioned earlier) in order to
establish the non-coincidence of a thing with itself. Yet, while his work
further informs the ambiguity of the human condition Beauvoir takes as
the basis of her ethics, Zizek does not write on the parallax inherent in
the conflict between individual and culture; the non-coincidence of a
subject to her environment. The space between the perspectives in
conflict the inherent dualism of the internal/external divide comes
into focus as we examine it from a wide variety of perspectives. Those
17 Nye, Philosophy and Feminism at the Border, 49.

spaces between dualisms are the very spaces that must be mapped in
order to locate subjective agency.
A Paradox in Location
Of the many examples Zizek offers to establish his point on the
space denoting the non-coincidence of a thing with itself, his use of
Kants epistemic parallax between the phenomenal and the noumenal
is perhaps the most informative. For Kant, the perceptible parts of a
thing do not quite match up to the existence of the thing itself (what is
ontologically prior to it) precisely because we cannot know a thing in-
itself. In a word, there is an epistemic gap between a thing in-itself and
our ability to perceive it. In relation to this gap, Zizek asserts that, our
freedom persists only in a space in between the phenomenal and the
noumenal, which is to say, we are free only so far as our horizon is
that of the phenomenal, insofar as the noumenal domain remains
inaccessible to us.18 This epistemic gap is the location of our
perspective on the material world wherein what we have access to via
our senses is not real, but only suggests reality. Reality itself is
eternally beyond perception.
Drawing on Kants work, I propose that this slippage between
the phenomenal and the noumenal is analogous to the way language
18 Zizek, The Parallax View, 23.

is employed in the mode of discourse that gives rise to a false sense of
unity. The main characteristic of this mode of discourse is its
phallogocentricity: the discourse gives primacy to an implied but
unproven (even noumenal) presence hovering just beyond each word
and thrusting it into (phenomenal) perceptible materiality. Dominance,
power, and privilege characterize discourse undertaken in this mode.
The nature of phallogocentric discourse is to demand that reality
conform to reason, or in this particular case, the demands of a
synthetic a posteriori reason.
The dualisms that this mode of discourse generates represent
the limits of rational discourse in that they impose unnecessary
limitations and introduce superfluous contingencies. This is clear in
that its influence is contingent on the social location of the person who
uses it. Mary Astell, for instance, was a great advocate for reason in
the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries: a time and place
in which women were barred from it because they were denied
education. According to contemporary scholar Hilda Smith, Astells
emphasis on teaching women the art of questioning, logic, and critical
thinking, even with its associated assumption of objectivity, was, from
a woman living in an age that denied women the ability and opportunity

to pursue systematic thought [...] a liberating process.19 This is very
clear in Astells A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II wherein Astell
figures logic as something accessible to women, even if they could not
pursue a formal education in the subject:
As to the Method of Thinking [...] it falls in with the Subject Ive
come to, which is, that Natural Logic I wou'd propose. I call it
natural because I shall not send you further than your Own
Minds to learn it, you may if you please take in the assistance of
some well chosen book, but a good Natural Reason after all is
the best Director, without this you will scarce Argue well, though
you had the Choicest Books and Tutors to Instruct you, but with
it you may, tho you happen to be destitute of the other.20
The natural logic Astell was interested in pursuing is, of course, none
other than the same universal reason Zizek would have us favor over
private uses of reason. And yet it is not and cannot be the same
reason, for the rhetorical connotations and historical conditions of its
advocacy were different for Astell than they are for Zizek. After all, an
informally educated, seventeenth-century English gentry-woman
advocating for the education of women in logic is worlds apart from a
contemporary Slovenian male professor arguing against the private
use of reason. The degree of thickness or transparency each
philosopher has with regard to this shared interest in logic is telling, for
19 Smith, "Intellectual Bases for Feminist Analysis," 31.
20 Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II. London: 1697. Qtd. in Sutherland, 125-126.

it is the difference between struggling for inclusion from the outside,
and struggling for equality from within.
Maria Lugones further illustrates this idea by describing two
possible approaches to logic: a logic of separation (purity) and a logic
of curdling (impurity).The logic of separation is about control,
containment, and unification through fragmentation wherein concepts
and people are divided in order to be more easily conquered.
Unification requires a fragmented and hierarchical ordering [...]
fragmentation is another guise of unity, both in the collectivity and the
individual.21 The test of whether an idea follows this logic is, then, to
see if ideas and experiences are fragmented in the name of a higher
order of unity or universality. By contrast, according to the logic of
curdling, the social world is complex and heterogeneous and each
person is multiple, nonfragmented, embodied.22 While the multiplicity
of Lugones vision of culture-in-individual and individual-in-culture
implied by this logic undermines the phallogocentric mode of
discourse, it is simultaneously rendered invisible by it. As multiplicity is
fragmented, thick is made transparent, and fictitious presences are
thrust into being by a convoluted logic in thrall to the continuation of its
Lugones, "Purity, Impurity, and Separation," 332.
Ibid., 332.

own fiction, what is invisible/marginal/other is lost in the clash of the
pseudo-same with itself.
At the end of the day, all of this conflict only serves to maintain
the illusion of unity. The contest is embedded in and necessitated by
the way we use language. This is the mode of communication that
hides the slippery relationship between signified and signifier. This is
particularly revealing in discourse on and around the notion of the
The Conceptual Emptiness of Property
The proper is a signifier that is conceptually related to property,
purity, self-identity, and exclusivity. A person is proper if her behavior
is within the boundaries of social acceptability. A proper young man,
for instance, might wear certain clothes to signify the properness of his
actions. These items are also proper to him, as both indicators of his
general mannerisms and as his property: items he owns. All in all, what
is proper to something or someone acts as a signifier in precisely the
discursive mode described above, for if ones clothing is proper, and
thus properly describes the properness of the wearer, then it is implied
that the clothing is proper to the wearer, and thus the wearer is a
proper person.

According to Derrida, this notion of the proper is precisely
conformity to itself, which entails an erasure of difference between the
(phenomenal) world of the signifier and the (noumenal) world of the
signified.23 Still, the slippage between the noumenal and the
phenomenal does not disappear, and things do not actually conform to
themselves. Rather, the example of property illustrates the way
discourse can convince us that we have somehow erased the
difference between the object and the object in-itself. In a word, this
conformity of an object to itself is an illusion.
This connection between propriety and property is so embedded
in the United States that it emerges from the cultural milieu in a variety
of ways. As Cornel West notes, political discourse on the problems
faced by African Americans tend to treat Black people as a problem
people. The connection is one of ownership that is centered on the
existence of an imaginary owning subject: if / experience or articulate
some barrier or injustice, then it is my problem. West states that
dominant political appraisals of the matter are both contentious and
entirely unhelpful: The predictable pitting of liberals against
conservatives, Great Society Democrats against self-help Republicans,
Derrida, Of Grammatology, 24.

reinforces intellectual parochialism and political paralysis.24 West
proposes that it is the responsibility of all people to address issues
stemming from social inequity, not just those who own the problems
that stem from them; [...] we must look to new frameworks and
languages to understand our multilayered crisis and overcome our
deep malaise, a malaise that, in the context of the present paper, is
the impoverishment of both individual and culture through the
oppressive consequences of a language that gives priority to discourse
that makes a problem an own-able thing.
This brings us back to an idea raised early on in this paper: the
problem of agency remains invisible to those who view it from a
perspective of privilege. As West frames it, the discourse appears as a
contest between those who would locate agency in the individual (self-
help Republicans) and those who would locate agency in the system
which gives rise to lived iterations of the same (Great Society
Democrats). The point I wish to draw attention to is this: from either
perspective the problem is still own-able. The only real difference is
who or what is thought to have a claim on it. Interestingly, Wests
preferred framing of the conflict is as negation of the object-status of
the problem itself: the nihilism of Black American culture.
24 West, Race Matters, 4.

As West describes it, the liberal/conservative discussion
conceals the most basic issue facing black America: the nihilistic threat
to its own existence.25 For West, nihilism is the lived experience of
horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important)
lovelessness, not an anti-authoritarian philosophical position.26 That
both the liberal and the conservative positions contribute to nihilism in
Wests analysis should come as no surprise. In various subtle and no-
so-subtle ways, these predominant debates over the lived experiences
of real people are internalized. Damaging self-analyses that result
from this assumption of the problem are particularly adept at taking
hold of those living in poverty-ridden conditions, with a limited capacity
to ward off self-contempt and self-hatred.27 People who, in thrall to the
seductive and destructive power of the discursive illusion of ownership,
own nothing but their problems.
The notion of the proper is lousy with cultural and conceptual
significance. If owning property is conceptually connected to the state
of individual propriety in specific social contexts, then both property
and the notion of the proper contributes in a unique way to our
intersubjective appraisals of these ideas. The concept of property also
25 Ibid., 19.
26 Ibid., 23.
27 Ibid., 27.

connects subjects and objects in a way that suggests property is the
site of subjective agency, as we saw above in the own-ability of social
problems. The issue becomes even more complicated when we hold
the concept of self-ownership under the microscope. In owning
ourselves we make ourselves both subject and object in a single
affirmation of independence: I own me. This is the point at which the
slippage between the ontic and the transcendental-ontological comes
to bear on the issue at hand: the slippage between the individual and
the socio-cultural conditions that give rise to the individual. In
positively affirming that I am proper to myself, I affirm a conformity to
self that I cannot prove while, at the same time, relegating myself to
the realm of property (things which can be owned or proper to a
subjective agent, whether myself or another). This raises yet another
issue an issue that further instantiates the original problem. The
notion of self I am working with here is inseparable from the linguistic
connections that give rise to it; the self-same connections which, I have
argued, give rise to false dichotomies which are, in turn, dependent on
language games.
Still, if the notion of self-ownership is problematic, then the idea
of the social ownership of individuals is even more so. The connection
between reason, ownership, social property, and oppression comes to

bear quite poignantly in discussions on and around the subject of
marriage, which, in early liberal discourse, was connected to
discussions on slavery.
Individual Property and Oppression
Mary Astell, whose ideas on logic I introduced earlier, was a
contemporary of John Locke. Their ideas on marriage aptly
demonstrate the concepts I have presented up to now. While Astells
arguments in favor of womens education firmly situate her as a
proponent of womens interests, she did so not only for their benefit,
but for the benefit of all citizens. Her thoughts on marriage were
penned in the same vein, though the liberatory power of her arguments
on the latter subject are slightly less accessible to most contemporary
readers. The differences between Astell and Locke were primarily
epistemic and political, and all things considered, because political
positions are built upon theories of knowledge (and visa versa) the two
are practically inseparable. It is important to keep in mind that both
Locke and Astell were writing in favor of greater liberty: Astell wrote in
favor of the advancement of womens education and ability to make
reasoned choices on marriage, while Locke wrote in favor of a political
system wherein citizens have greater power over their own affairs.

A thoroughgoing empiricist, Lockes work on knowledge
provided the theoretical basis for transfer of power away from the king
and royal bureaucracy and into the hands of landowners and
merchants.28 Locke argued that there is no thought before experience
gives one something to think about. Just as the Rationalist position he
argued against a position that Astell held provided the theoretical
underpinning for Royalist politics, Lockes Essay on Human
Understanding provided the theoretical framework for modern
Rather than attempt to prove that theories of knowledge are
related to political power by drawing a clear line of demarcation
between the two, I ask the reader to temporarily assume this is the
case; or rather, to hold the idea in a sort of skeptical tension as the
story unfolds. If, as I have argued, the phallogocentric mode of
discourse asserts the positive existence of a thing in the absence of
any proof, then to assert a distinction between areas of philosophical
discourse would create a false separation between those interests one
might have in knowledge as opposed to its social impact. Thus, Astells
interest in rational universals and Lockes penchant for reductionism
might seem to have little bearing on their ideas on oppression and
28 Nye, Feminism and Modem Philosophy, 49.

privilege when it comes to marital unions. In a word, if I were to draw a
line in the sand between epistemology and political philosophy, we
would be left groping after similarities and differences in their ideas
while bypassing and concealing the fact that there are elements
missing in their contributions to the overall discourse on marriage. And
when what is already hidden is buried under layers of unnecessary
discursive sediment, oppression takes root and is perpetuated.
This is exactly the point Butler makes on the perpetuation of
gender norms and their impact on social interaction in terms of a false
yet compulsory heteronormativity a state of affairs that represses
alternate expressions of gender and oppresses gay, lesbian, intersex,
and transgender people.29 Thus, distinctions based more on
convention or ease than necessity should be held in skeptical tension
as their veracity is tested by the presentation of ideas and alternate
constructions not yet in evidence (perhaps, but not necessarily,
because such evidence is obscured from view).
For both Astell and Locke, once the marriage vows have been
spoken, it is the lot of a wife to obey her husband. There are subtle and
important differences in their rationale for this, however. Locke wrote,
[...] as we see that generally the laws of mankind and customs of
29 Butler, "Performative Acts," 101.

nations have ordered it so, there is, I grant, a foundation in nature [for
a wifes submission to her husband].30 It is important for Locke that
this foundation is based in nature as opposed to divine decree so that
the connection between the sovereignty of a husband and monarchical
authority is severed. Thus, he states clearly that the pain women
experience in childbirth, though divinely decreed and the reason some
authors cited for mens dominion over women, does not offer men
monarchical authority over their wives. After all, if there could be found
a remedy for it, mothers in labor should certainly avail themselves of
it.31 No, the real foundation for a husbands authority over women lies
in Lockes interpretation of the facts of the matter: that there is a
natural need for men and women to come together to reproduce and
care for children,32 and when these two partners in parenting disagree,
a husbands natural understanding puts him in a position of authority
over his wife.33
As the reader has already gathered, Lockes position was built
on a unique and oddly flexible notion of nature. According to Nye,
Locke was ready in the same breath to proclaim the very impossibility
of political servitude [...] but in the case of slavery, political reality
30 Locke, The Two Treatises of Civil Government, Treatises One, Section 47.
31 Ibid.
32 Ibid., Treatises Two, Section 79.
33 Ibid., Treatises Two, Section 82.

imposed on nature a conflicting rule.34 If slavery is the condition
wherein one person has complete and utter control over the labor of
another, then marriage is a condition of slavery for wives, albeit a
temporary one in Lockes mind.35 Of course, while wives were bound to
serve their mates so long as their union lasted as, indeed, they were
if one partner had the absolute authority to override the other Locke
invoked Aristotle to justify the permanent enslavement of other peoples
as a natural law of just war.36
Astell noted the contradictions inherent in Lockes position and
objected vehemently. Quoting Locke, she wrote, if all Men are born
free, how is it that all Women are born Slaves? as they must be if
being subjected to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary Will of
Men, be the perfect Condition of Slavery?37 While Astells silence on
the issue of natural slavery as the result of war speaks volumes (a
point I will return to momentarily), she demonstrated again and again
that mens power over women was assumed but not proven in natural
law. Rather, our interpretations of nature must adhere to the rules of
reason, for the Law of Nature is the Law of God, who cannot
34 Nye, Feminism and Modern Philosophy, 50.
35 Locke, The Two Treatises of Civil Government, Treatises Two, Section 82.
36 Ibid., Sections 23-24.
37 Astell, Reflections upon Marriage, sig. air.

contradict Himself.38 Ergo, if Lockes position on freedom is accurate,
it must apply to everyone, or have a really solid rationale for doing
otherwise. If it does not, then it cannot be a law of nature.
Astell reasoned that a wifes subjugation to her husband was a
proper part of the divine order of things. A conservative thinker, Astell
believed in hierarchy as ordained by God: hierarchy in the state [...];
hierarchy in the church [...]; and hierarchy also within the family.39
This, she argued, was the only rational social order. However, simply
because this was the best way to organize a society does not mean
that those who are subordinate should be kept in an unnatural state of
ignorance. Here, Astells use of the word nature solidifies the
resonance between nature and reason in her philosophy: But if in
spite of all Difficulties Nature prevails, and [girls and women] cant be
kept so ignorant as their Masters woud have them, they are stard
upon as Monsters [,..]40 That is, when a girl or woman is naturally
intelligent, then the natural fact that she is living proof of womens
intelligence is brushed off as a mutation of the natural order. Rather
than providing the evidence that disproves the rule, she becomes the
exception to it. She is a monster.
38 Ibid.
39 Sutherland, The Eloquence of Mary Astell, 87.
40 Astell, Reflections Upon Marriage, sig b2v.

Here, Astell is directly challenging the Aristotelian ideology of
reproduction which held that female bodies were the result of
something having gone wrong in utero.41 In this case, Astell is arguing
that the very idea that women are deformed intellectually is
fundamentally flawed: if women were educated, then they would
reason just as well as men. Since they were not, they should not have
been held accountable for their own ignorance. It is important to the
present inquiry to note that in challenging Aristotelian doctrine on this
point Astell connected the lines of discourse between marital and other
forms of slavery: both forms of subjugation supported by Locke. Recall
that he supported slavery as the result of war on Aristotelian grounds.
If Aristotle was mistaken when it came to his gendered theory of
reproduction, then perhaps he was also mistaken about the justness of
enslaving prisoners of war. As noted above, Astell was silent on the
matter. Still, the ideas (hers or not) lurk in the spaces between words.
In this case, silence speaks much more truthfully and forcefully
than anything Astell or Locke wrote on the subject, for this silence
helped bring a tradition they shared (the Aristotelian; the philosophical)
to bear on the heads of those who could not participate in it:
uneducated women and eternal prisoners of war (a war Locke argued
41 Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects, 79.

was just, though I have no empirical proof this was the case). In order
to understand the impact of this silence on the matter at hand (the
dichotomy of subject and culture), it is important to figure out what
happens to power and property in the delivery of the arguments. In
terms of our present interests we must ask what or who can be owned,
and who has the authority to own either things or people. It is almost
ironic that in this case the discourse itself was ownable, on a certain
level, by virtue of the gendered properties of the rhetoric used by both
Locke and Astell: the rhetoric of public discourse.
According to Christine Mason Sutherland, the dominant
rhetorical theory in the early modern period associated women with
sermo, or eloquence in private conversation, while men were
associated with contentio, or public speech.42 The more masculine art
of contentio was considered the formal study of rhetoric, and included
public announcements of ones thoughts in print. Part of the reason for
this, according to Sutherland, is that early modern rhetorical theories
were based on ancient models (Aristotle again, among others) as they
were adopted and interpreted by Renaissance humanists, which
included an ancient connection between speech and sexual activity.
42 Sutherland, The Eloquence of Mary Astell, xviii-xxi.

Women, who were not associated with public speech, became
the targets of the negative aspects of this association when they
engaged in it. For instance, loquaciousness was associated with
witchcraft, and some of the charges against English witches included
assaultive speech [...] slander, defamation, filthy speeches, and
scandalous speeches.43 A woman who engaged in public speech
committed a crime against her own sex, and was considered
unnatural, hermaphrodicical, or, as Ben Johnson immortalized her,
Epicoene. In other words: monstrous. The eloquent male, on the other
hand, was lauded as the ideal orator-citizen, and his speeches acted
as a symbol of his virility in this instantiation of the classic double-
Monstrous, unnatural, deformed; Mary Astells publication of
Reflections in the male rhetorical mode of contentio relegated her to
the margins of the discourse. While her earlier books were written in
the form of letters, connecting them to the firmly feminine epistolary
tradition of sermo (a tradition that males also took part in), to write as a
woman and to the betterment of women in the masculine form made
her anomalous: an exception to the rule that set her apart from both
43 Ibid., 20.
44 Ibid., 18.

women and men. It is the very epitome of phallocentricity is it not,
when the gender of rhetoric establishes the limits of a writers ideas.
Locke, of course, did not encounter this sort of difficulty, and many of
his ideas were eventually adopted in the Western world.
Unto the Present
Only the positive, assertive, and virile ideas survive. This is not
true, of course, but that it is seemingly the case is the important point
when it comes to establishing the ways in which discourse can
establish the appearance of conformity in a thing to itself; even where
there is no strong logical reason for doing so. As we have seen, the
silences inherent in the discourse speak volumes, and the monstrous
nature of Astells text inverted her logic in terms of her socially
identified relationship with public discourse. In looking at how these
ideas have played out in the present, we stand to learn more about the
space between the dichotomy of individual and culture.
The obvious question a contemporary scholar with feminist
sensibilities (broadly construed) would bring to Lockes work is why he
chose to refrain from arguing for the equality of all people, as opposed
to just land-owning men. Susan Okin took this line of questioning a bit
further and asked why, even after most of the legal restrictions on

women have been removed including those Locke himself
anticipated, like divorce women are not on equal political footing with
men. In addition to the logical inconsistencies of Lockes theory, Okin
identified several hidden requirements for the existence of Lockes free
individual: domestic work, child-rearing activities (beyond merely siring
and giving birth, that is), and other forms of menial labor which free
up mens time so that they can go about the proper business of being
men. For Okin, making these connections explicit through feminist
historical work is an important means of comprehending and laying
bare assumptions behind deeply rooted modes of thought that
continue to affect peoples lives in major ways.45 Thus, by
investigating the ideological roots of oppression, we can understand
how a certain notion of freedom (wrought in discourse) can actually
lead to oppression; that is, how free women who divorce their
husbands, are impoverished as a result.46 If freedom, individuality,
and property are conceptually and politically inseparable, then
oppression is thick and assumes a smothering quality in the hidden
spaces between them.
45 Susan Okin, Women in Western Political Thought, 3.
46 Nye, Feminism and Modem Philosophy, 56.

As we have seen, Astell closely tracked and re-figured Lockes
arguments on both slavery and nature when it came to his opinions on
marriage. While she insisted that married women should obey their
husbands, and even acknowledged that unmarried women owe loyalty
and obedience to their male relatives, Astell wondered who women in
situations like her own should serve: unmarried women who had no
living male relatives to speak of, much less obey. It cant be all Men in
general, she mused, unless all Men were agreed to give the same
Commands.47 While a woman outside of the direct control of a man
might set her at odds with other women (a monstrosity of gender), the
very idea that all men should have control over all women exposes the
flaws in logic that make it seem as though there were actually two
worlds wherein human beings exist: a male world, and a female world.
According to Sutherland, what [Astell] clearly shows is that the
two worlds [...] so sharply separated in the bourgeois ideology must
be seen as one.48 On a very explicit level, for Astell this singularity of
worlds is very similar to Lugones logic of unity, which seeks
wholeness through fragmentation. For a woman, her position to the
text forces her into a logic of curdling, for a logic rendered by a
47 Astell, Reflections Upon Marriage, sig. b3r.
48 Sutherland, The Eloquence of Mary Astell, 80.

monster is indeed a bent and brittle thing. Not unified itself, Astells
work could not but be patterned out in defiance of the unity she
explicitly sought.
If, however, there is a distinction to be made between discursive
and lived realities, then Astell was no monster. Her ideas were
certainly more consistent than Lockes on the subject of marriage, and
while I am loathe to enter a marriage on the terms she found
reasonable, Im comforted in knowing that she, too, eschewed this
servile state. In fact, I find neither Lockes nor Astells vision of
marriage tolerable: in both I am my husbands subject, and I have
equal political footing with him in neither. The property of another, it
seems, can own no property: even if that person were only temporarily
owned. Instead, it is perhaps more helpful to look for the gaps in the
discourse gaps which led us to a more complete understanding of
Astell in this paper, and which also pointed to the reasons behind the
impoverishment of own-able persons. Here I would like to draw the
readers attention to an even more obvious gap; hidden in plain sight
all along. Neither Astell nor Locke was a married woman or a slave.
While they were discussed, they were voiceless in this debate, and the
clash of ideologies Rational and Empirical, Royalist and Liberal -
served to better hide that fact. This nihilistic omission wiped out the

effective existence of slaves and wives as agents, or authors of their
own experiences.

Life on the Border
One cannot hope to escape the impasse of competing
arguments using the same logical formulations which created them.
How, then, can a post-structuralist critique of the dominant discursive
mode (much less the connections I am drawing between post-
structuralism, postmodernism, and the history of ideas), provide ways
out of the current situation? In Chapter One I provided an outline of
one way in which oppressive conditions are rooted and perpetuated:
the point at which the self becomes the object (property) is an
instantiation of oppression within the socio-linguistic milieu which gives
rise to the false dichotomy of self and other. What is important for this
chapter is that the same linguistic structure which not only allows, but
demands that the self is not only contained but capable of
simultaneously owning and being owned is an illusion: it is premised
on positive existence and reiteration of an unproven connection of
signified to signifier.

In the last chapter I also introduced the idea of the whole as a
problematic ideation. In order to locate ways out of the same/pseudo-
same dilemma, the relationship of the dualism with itself (the whole
conflict) demands further explanation. According to Maria Lugones,
the assumption of unity is an act of split separation; as conceiving of
what is multiple as unified, what is multiple as internally separable,
divisible into what makes it one and the remainder.1 The remainder is
a lost argument, an experience of otherness, and everything not
encapsulated by the whole of the elements positively presented in the
conflict. What is many becomes fractured in the phallogocentric
conceptualization. And in order to imagine it, we must participate in an
exercise [in] split-separation imagination, [an] assumption [which]
generates and presupposes others.2 This is to say marginalization is a
construction of the phallogocentrically informed and structured
The very fact that these false antinomies exist suggests that the
arguments which end in them conceal truth rather than illuminate it.
Deleuze overcame the problem of oversimplified issues by introducing
a rhizomatic figuration through which a subject could think past the
dualistic style of Western theoretical discourse. I will return to this later,
1 Lugones, "Purity, Impurity, and Separation," 333.
2 Ibid.

as it is important to ensure that the present discourse is directed
toward the point at which others are created Ultimately it is not the
form of the arguments, or the linguistic mode in which they are
articulated that weighs most heavily on the present matter: it is the
parallax between them. The particular conflict I have been working with
is directly related to privilege and oppression in that this slippage
between subject and culture, steeped as it is in the concept of
property, gives rise to a subjective consciousness of disadvantage: it is
a poverty of linguistic affirmation, or a lack of positive existence. It is, in
effect, the space between competing worldviews, as well as the
implied but unstated opposition to each: a negation as opposed to an
affirmation, and the vantage point of the subject who lives between the
The problem is revealed in the critique: no person is a negation.
Wests account of the culture of nihilism is posited on the existence of
the people affected. What we are left with are subjects on the precipice
between affirmation and annihilation. Figured differently, the subjective
perspective can be that of a group of people pressed against a brick
wall. For some, discourse is mapped onto the flesh, and for others
oppressions are internalized from both sides of the discourse. This
space between is liminal: a threshold of sorts that divides a person

within and without. It is a borderland established and reinforced by
Mapping the Terrain
If, as West surmised, one of cultures main functions is to give
people reasons not to kill themselves, it presumably does this by
helping us form our beliefs, giving us opportunities and reasons to
grow and learn, and showing us the roles we can play in our
communities. For those of us who are not part of developing that
culture, its dominance over our minds and experiences can be a
source of tension and fragmentation. For Gloria Anzadua, culture is
made by those in power men.3 That is, culture is self-affirming, self-
perpetuating, and phallocentric. But is this necessarily the case?
Anzaldua describes the purpose and usefulness of tribal rights over
individual rights in ensuring the survival of the group, especially when
the group is struggling for survival in the face of genocide; certainly a
goal noble enough to hold nihilism at bay. However, the tribal group is
never a whole it cannot be for there are always others where
deviance from the norm is not tolerated. For Anzaldua, sexual
deviance from the heteronormative whole is a common theme in all
cultures. And as oppression breeds oppression, the queer are the
3 Anzaldua, Borderlands/ La Frontera, 40.

mirror reflecting the heterosexual tribes fear: being different, being
other and therefore lesser, therefore sub-human, in-human, non-
human.4 In a word, the other within an othered culture is a discursively
created monster that reminds the group of its own (also created)
Othering is the pseudo-substantiation of those who are afforded
less they become positive but only in contrast to the norm. They are
on the losing side of an internalized contest a false dichotomy turned
on itself. Anzaldua assures us that this was not always the case:
Maimed, mad, and sexually different people were believed to possess
supernatural powers by primal cultures magico-religious thinking. For
them, abnormality was the price a person had to pay for her or his
inborn extraordinary gift.5 If the sexually deviant have been imagined
differently, then at the very least this establishes that marginalization
and ostracization is not the only possible response to breaking from
the norm. But more than that, when read in the current context, it
harkens back to the idea of ownership and possession: when the
person who is different has a gift, then she or he is different, but not
monstrous. A price is paid for the difference, to be sure, but the
abnormality remains proper to that persons identity. By contrast, a
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid., 41.

person who does not possess the difference that sets him or her apart
from the group is anomalous: a hideous reflection of the differences
that set the larger group apart from the possessive norm; or those who
possess. All the disenfranchised group owns is its problems an
interesting and important negation, as we saw in the last chapter.
In their position as reflections of the culture that rejects them,
those who violate heteronormativity occupy a position of annihilation
that mirrors the mode of discourse that posits them as disposable.
The mirror is an ambivalent symbol, writes Anzeldua. Not only does
it reproduce images (the twins that stand for thesis and antithesis); it
contains and absorbs them.6 For Anzeldua, the symbolism of the
mirror is associated with passages between life and death, or future
and past. It is also a symbol of possession (a glance can freeze us in
place,) a symbol of knowledge, and a literal and metaphorical barrier
between the subject and object of a gaze.7 Three themes, established
in the last chapter, come to bear here in the metaphor of reflection:
property (that which is possessed), knowledge (that which is held by
the subjective knower), and barriers (that which restricts access and
ensures own-ability). Those who occupy the position of the reflection,
then, represent more than the inversion of the norm, as this norm is
6 Ibid., 64.
7 Ibid.

often internalized: they represent a perspective on the dominant
culture that both poses a barrier and points out a passage through the
presenting paradox. They live in the space between.
This space is different for each person who occupies it. When
marked in the flesh the space, for instance, between female and
male then it can be located in the body. But it can also be located in
language, borders between regions or nations, or lines of demarcation
that divide social groups. These markers are rarely simple. Judith
Halberstam located just such a struggle between [female to male
transsexuals] and lesbian butches who accuse each other of gender
normativity.8 The accusation is devastating when posed, as it was, in
a culture wherein gender is generally thought of as a social construct.
In an essay critiquing Halberstam, Jay Prosser posits that queer
theory, which is steeped in ideas of multiplicity and fluidity, is at odds
with transgender theories that instead focus on subjective narrative
and individual experience.9 What is interesting about this border of
flesh and gender is that in drawing distinctions between fluidity and
stability (another instantiation of the subject/culture conflict), the FTM
transsexual and the butch lesbian become both fluid and stable in
relation to one another. As Halberstam concludes, the queer butch
8 Halberstam, "Transgender Butch," 146.
9 Prosser, "No Place Like Home," 490.

[...] represents fluidity to the transsexual mans stability, and stability
(staying in the female body) to the transsexual mans fluidity (gender
crossing).10 This example of crossing, though certainly steeped in
notions beyond the scope of the present inquiry (the concept of a
gender continuum, for instance), brings the idea of mirroring, or the
mirror as a metaphor for the parallax space, into sharper focus.
If we imagine these groups in contest on either side of the mirror
- inside looking out, or outside looking in we find that they are both at
once. The gaze that pins down the pseudo-other in the mirror is really
only a projection of ones own image captured in a specific time and
place. The idea of crossing over changes neither the connotation nor
the physical position of the viewer: what we see is always, to some
degree, ourselves. If it should happen that our perspective is that of an
other, the dispossession of self is necessary but not sufficient to that
image. Why? Because through the process of othering there is a
poverty of subjective agency: a stripping down of propriety substituted
with ownership of lack. The image is what it is not.
The Poverty of Agency
In counting lack as a part of the whole of the false dichotomy
between subject and culture (the culture in the individual, and the
10 Halberstam, "Transgender Butch," 156.

individual in the culture), our appreciation of the relationship appears to
be complete... again. At least we can see that we are at a point where
we can no longer afford to ignore the fact that the socio-linguistic
structure which gave rise to the conflict does not account for subjects
for whom lack what is proper to them; e.g., the underprivileged and
oppressed. The dominant mode of discourse cannot account for
subjects who, for nearly any reason, either cannot own themselves or
who do not consider themselves property (their own or otherwise). It is
not terribly difficult to establish this point, and though my arguments
will likely be contested, the fact that they are debatable only
establishes the larger point I am trying to establish. Even so, I will
make the attempt to establish a socio-cultural disregard for people who
lack through a short examination of poverty in the United States.
Social welfare laws in America are often grounded in the
unproven ideological position that poor families are headed by lazy
parents who could escape poverty if they would only try. Sixty-two
percent of these are headed by single parent mothers according the
U.S. Census Bureaus 2007 data, and some racial and ethnic groups,
African Americans and Hispanics (broadly construed), are

overrepresented among poor families.11 The construction of this
assumption and its indoctrination into U.S. poor laws fell along the
same political lines the construction of the problem with African
Americans outlined by Cornel West: conservatives located the source
of the problem in the individual choices of the poor, while liberals
imagined families as reflections of cultural shifts rather than the causes
of them.12 Already it is clear that the lines drawn by the discourse
create a gap between the needs of those in poverty and the
interventions designed to alleviate it.
Programs designed to address poverty include cash benefit
programs (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), in-kind transfers
such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly
known as the Food Stamp Program), and medical assistance. Eligibility
criteria for the benefits a family can access are most commonly based
on a formula established in 1961 by the U.S. Department of
Agriculture: the so-called Thrifty Food Plan which accounts for a
familys food budgeting needs while ignoring other relevant costs
(housing, child care, transportation, health care, and other expenses).
This formula is used to calculate the Poverty Line in the United States,
an absolute measure of poverty that is updated each year. The fact
11 U.S. Census Bureau, 2007
12 Dill et. al. "Race, Family Values, and Welfare Reform," 471.

that relevant expenses beyond food were overlooked has led to the
establishment of an impossibly low need standard; a standard that
makes many working poor families ineligible for services and programs
that would stabilize and help create equitable living conditions for all
The political arguments that plague attempts to create social
welfare programs that truly benefit families center on the perceived
characteristics of the poor; extant attributes that can be cited as the
reason for the failure of poor people to succeed (i.e., acquire property).
While liberal critics use a wider scope to understand the problem
(gender, race, job availability and creation, etc.) these attributes are
often either strictly demarcated by social identity and location or
chalked up as barriers to success. While on the conservative side of
the debate statements about the lack of family values among the
underclass evidenced by the supposed immorality of single women
bearing illegitimate children, are readily available,13 on the liberal side
attempts to [disentangle] family structure from socioeconomic
background, education, race, and other variables [produces research
that] reveals that family structure is paramount in determining the life
Dill, et. al., "Race, Family Values, and Welfare Reform," 468.

chances of children.14 All in all, this situation makes it nearly
impossible to locate the actual people under scrutiny. When you
substitute family structure with any of these other factors the results
might well determine that race, socioeconomic background, or
education are the primary predictors of a childs chances in life. For
instance, if African Americans, who have a higher rate of single parent
homes than white families, were to adopt a two-parent family structure
it would only close half of the income gap between white and African
American families. Similarly, poverty rates would be reduced only
slightly if Mexicans and Cubans had the nuclear family structures of
non-Latino white children.15 So what is the purpose of disentangling
family structure from other factors? How does it provide a meaningful
alternative to the conservative narrative? Perhaps a better question
would be: whose interests are served by framing the discourse in this
Fragmentation within the hierarchical structure of reality is the
discourse of unity. This is a steady theme in feminist criticism.
According to Rosi Braidotti, classical universalism, which conflates the
masculine and the white with the universal and confines the feminine
to a secondary position of difference, rests on an oppositional or
14 Ibid., 471.

dualistic logic.16 For Braidotti, fragmentation is not a reason for
nihilism or despair: it is a call to action. We should seek pathways
through this fractured and fragmented subjective landscape we find
ourselves in. We should find new ways of making connections by
shattering the monstrous reflections given to us, of us, by a culture
premised on duality. The only way to tackle poverty is to empower the
As you will have noted, discussions of the problem of poverty
rarely include representatives, and never decision-makers, who
actually live in poverty. When economically underprivileged persons
are present, the attempt at inclusiveness generally comes across as
base tokenism. What is missing is cteeperthan the lack indicated by
poverty itself: it is the lack of agency implied by the position of the poor
as persons to be serviced, not as leaders who can give accurate and
reliable information about the effectiveness of the services provided.
Through a Glass, Darkly
While poverty is the most literal example of this phenomenon,
the same analysis may be applied to conditions of oppression
wherever they appear. The interplay between the subject and culture
mirrors, or is analogous to, the interplay of denial and overcoming that
16 Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects," 98.

is part and parcel with a transient mode of subjective awareness the
consciousness of poverty or lack. In order to overcome conditions of
physical impoverishment, that is, to have agency, the impoverished
subject must deny the presenting condition of lacking pull herself up
by her bootstraps by denying she ever needed the assistance of
others. However, in order to overcome psychological/psychosocial
poverty, the subject must admit to the deficiency the first step to
overcoming is to admit you have a problem! It is this splitting of
subjective aims along the continuum of physical and psychological that
moves the subject toward the proper; toward ownership. But when we
see the slippage between these dual goals (admit you have a problem,
but deny your need for help) the space between the moving target of
the parallax perspective comes into focus. That space, and the
motion its location as a moving target implies, is the site of subjective
This is true for three reasons: it allows the impoverished person
to see the circumstantial whole of her/his predicament, to consider the
logical inconsistency of its social significance, and to change the way
s/he conceptualizes it. This new thinking is agency, transient agency
which necessitates a transient subject be both cognizant and self-
directing within the intersubjective framework which gives rise to this

awareness. This is the awareness of, in Lugones words, a subject
who in its multiplicity perceives, understands, grasps its worlds as
multiple sensuously, passionately, as well as rationally without the
splitting separation between sense/emotion/reason.17 The only thing
this subject lacks is the illusion of a simplistic vantage point from which
s/he can claim ownership over objects, knowledge, or even barriers.
This is subjectivity as process.
Note that subjective agency, as I describe it here, is not
dependent on the presence (or even the existence) of an individual
subject. Rather, subjectivity is presented as a figuration of a particular
discursive mode a logic of multiplicity, or curdling as Lugones calls
it.18 As with Rosi Braidottis figuration of the nomadic polyglot (which I
will return to momentarily), or Luce Iragrays depiction of parted lips, or
Donna Haraways cyborg, the figuration of transience I wish to explore
as a way out of the ponflict between self and culture is an embodied
17 Lugones, "Purity, Impurity, and Separation," 333.
18 Lugones notes that there are similarities between her formulation of mestiza
consciousness and postmodernism, but she is careful to draw a distinction between them in
terms of origin and trajectory (though the goals are, according to Lugones, very much the
same). I, too, think this distinction is important, and lest this comparison between Braidotti
and Lugones give an impression of a uniformity in thought that does not exist, I urge the
reader to consider that I am primarily attempting to draw connections between them:
ultimately, mine is a postmodern feminist project.

intellectual lens, or point of focus designed to direct the reader toward
an understanding of absence or lack.19
Braidotti defines such a figuration as a style of thought that
evokes or expresses ways out of the phallocentric vision of the subject
and as politically informed images that portray the complex
interaction levels of subjectivity.20 Figurations are ways of thinking
through connections and disconnections in subjective experience. To
work with them, one does not need to refer to the existence of any
individual subject. Figurations are conceptual frameworks that allow us
to describe and think through a constellation of ideas, which are
themselves born of a myriad of individual, subjective experiences.
They bring a web of intersubjective connections into focus, enabling us
to understand those connections in a rhizomatic fashion; that is,
whereas individual expressions of a particular experience are bound
up and limited, rhizomatic expressions allow for a variety of different
conceptual exit and entry points, and can thus account for the
subjective experiences of a variety of individual interactions both over
time and intersubjectively.
Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects, 4.
20 Ibid., 1-4

On Compromise
My earlier examination of marginality as it relates to
contemporary American poverty is only a tiny cross-section of the
experiences of those who are underprivileged. Indeed, no account of
privilege and oppression can be truly complete. I do, however, want to
spend some time addressing some of the commonly cited sources of
confusion over culture and agency before moving on. As I mentioned
earlier, the lack of agency afforded to oppressed persons is
demonstrated in their marginalization in discourses about them. Thus,
the marginalization is an other-izing experience: one in which the
oppressed person is denied the benefit of the doubt when it comes to
their interest and/or ability to make changes for themselves.
Uma Narayan addressed this problem as it relates to feminist
discourse about the needs and desires of non-Western women. In
accounting for other women, Narayan argues that Western feminists
are confronted with a dual ethical impulse: on one hand, we see the
oppression of the other as a signifier of her status as prisoner to the
patriarchy, while on the other, cognizant of the cultural considerations
of such an image, we imagine the other as a dupe of patriarchy who

wholeheartedly accepts and endorses her own oppression.21 Each
characterization (stereotype) of the other woman removes her from
any consideration of autonomy or agency: she is either wholly a victim,
or completely brainwashed by her culture.
It is more than a mere coincidence that this contradiction in
explanations for why non-Western women are oppressed should exist:
it is another false dichotomy generated through the use of the
phallogocentric mode of discourse. But unlike the earlier analysis of
the conflict between individual and culture, I would like to emphasize
the falsehood inherent in the current conflict in an effort to expose the
consequences of this type of reasoning. First, as with my examination
of poverty, those oppressed persons addressed in and by the
discourse are rarely, if ever, given a voice in the discussion. This re-
marginalization (the first marginalization was imposed by the
presenting conditions which led to the desire to discuss the other in the
first place) only adds to the conditions of oppression that are up for
discussion: the other does not speak for herself, is not asked to speak
her own mind, and thus is thought not to have one.
While this is easy to see in the example of the dupe of the
patriarchy, the same reasoning applies to the prisoner in the sense
21 Narayan, "Minds of Their Own," 419.

that by figuring this other woman as completely coerced and forced to
comply with the rules established and enforced by her patriarchal
culture, the possibility that she might have actually chosen at least
some of the trappings of her existence is entirely overlooked. Again,
she is denied agency. As Narayan proposes, non-Western others, like
underprivileged Western persons, must negotiate with those who are
dominant in their culture in order to get by. Neither prisoners nor
dupes, these women make concessions with the larger social order in
an effort to keep those elements of the patriarchal package they find
value in while negotiating for changes they would like to see.22
Narayan locates the source of this failure to recognize bargaining as
authentic decision-making in a distinctly Western concept of autonomy.
In terms of the socio-linguistic function of the word in the English-
speaking world wherein autonomy is connected to idealistic visions of
freedom and independence, Narayans argument is convincing. Still,
Id like to explore this idea of misunderstanding in a different vein: that
of the moving target of understanding and its effect on the
underprivileged persons who are in question, but somehow left out of
the discussion.
Ibid., 421.

The denial of agency coupled with the literal absence of the
persons in question (their thoughts, their physical presence, etc.)
brings us back to this idea of lacking, and its connection to the parallax
position: the movable and slippery space between competing
arguments. If, as I have stated, the location of subjective agency lies in
the space between those positions, then Narayans concept of
bargaining as an example of legitimate autonomous decision-making
further informs this idea. The decisions negotiated are weighed
between at least two choices, and while these choices might not
always present as genuine choices (to use Narayans examples, the
choice between wearing makeup and losing employment, or between
veiling and being ostracized by ones family), they are choices
nonetheless. At least this is so in our experience of deliberating over
them. Narayan assures us that:
Many nonautonomous choices arguably have significance to
agents because they are 'one's own' they are forms of liberty
we enjoy, and resent interferences with, even when we may
grant that they are not based on critical reflection or are
otherwise robustly autonomous.23
However, the idea that one might own her nonautonomous choices
comes across as a poor reason for respecting choices made under
such circumstances. Please note: even as I argue that the rationale for
23 Ibid., 430.

respecting these choices is insufficient, I am not saying that we should
therefore disrespect the decision-makers. While this is certainly a large
step toward actually respecting and understanding the agency of
others (non-Western or otherwise), and even toward honoring a
decision-makers sense of having actually made a choice, Narayans
account is entirely focused on the existence and agency of individuals.
That is problematic in terms of the conflict between individual and
culture: the unproved premise that the individual has somehow
absorbed cultural influences to create a self that somehow operates
independently of them. While it is true that Narayans depiction
encapsulates the decision-maker in a more realistic conceptual
environment than, say, Zizeks, the slippage between the extent
decision-maker and her or his ontic roots still remains.
Instead, if we figure the individual as a discursive as opposed to
an ontic unity, the figurative process of thinking between the lines of
opposing discourse reveals ways out of the inauthentic choices offered
up by oppressive conditions (themselves born of discursive unities, but
with real effects upon peoples lived experiences). According to
The critical issue is the interconnectedness between identity,
subjectivity, and power. The self being a sort of network of

interrelated points, the question then becomes: By what sort of
interconnections, sidesteps, and lines of escape can one
produce feminist knowledge without fixing it into a new
In light of Narayans observations, it is clear that we should not respect
culture for cultures sake, but for the decision-makers. For Braidotti,
culture and individual cannot be separated, for each individual
decision-maker is part of the larger matrix of identity, subjectivity and
power. In a word, we are intersubjective entities that are inseparable
from the experiences and conditions that connect and create us.
Transient Subjectivity as Poverty in Motion
The physical and the psycho-social are, of course, transitional
signifiers themselves: a lack of food might also constitute the presence
of hunger, or the presence of injury might indicate a lack of safety.
What is important here is the movement conceptual and physical -
between and among different ways of looking at the same situation.
Lack is ever-present; an important point when it comes to the social
construction of transience; the social enforcement of poverty and the
glorification of possession. As poverty is oppression in its social
significance and denial of that which is essential to material wellbeing
24 Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects, 31.

(the welfare of the body), transience is the denial of this denial a
negation of a negation.
In order to distinguish this notion of subjectivity from what Zizek
takes as the standard critical procedure, of conceptualizing
subjectivity as dangerous hubris, a will to power, which obfuscates
and distorts the authentic essence of man, I first need to distinguish a
figuration from an absolute.25 First, the claim I am making concerns
subjective agency more than subjectivity itself. When I posit that
subjective agency exists in the space between positively affirmed
points along the continuum of the ontic/transcendental ontological, I
am referring to the capacity to make thoughtful changes in the
discursive landscape-which, in turn, constitutes and creates
subjectivity. And therein lays the rub: in order to make this claim, I
cannot separate subjectivity from the discursive landscape it is a part
of. As Zizek puts it, this irreducible gap between the subject and its
background, the fact that a subject never fully fits its environment, is
never fully embedded in it, defines subjectivity.26 The gaps inherent to
dichotomous discourse undertaken in the phallogocentric mode are not
foreign to the subject: indeed, these lines of discourse cross through
25 Zizek, The Parallax View, 42.
26 Ibid., 45.

and connect with one another within the subject so defined. That is,
subjectivity is a concept shot through with holes. The figuration is a
tool, or framework, through which this subject can create change in the
discursive environment that creates both the subject and the
background that subject rests against so uneasily.
To dwell for a moment on this notion of the Hegelian subject:
the subject who, as a lack, recognizes himself as something in order to
fill himself is inwardly focused to his own detriment. This inward focus
leads, seemingly inevitably, to a splitting of the subject (though not a
necessarily a split-separation of subjective aims) into Self and Other,
or the One and its empty place of inscription.27 It is this inward focus
that led Zizek to conclude that the multiple is not the primordial
ontological fact, which is, of course, the slippage between self and
Self. Rather, the transcendental genesis of the multiple resides in the
lack of the binary signifier: that is, the multiple emerges as a series of
attempts to fill in the gap of the missing binary signifier.28 In a word, a
subject cannot see others because others originate from the missing
part of the single subject. This is Lacans la femme nexiste pas\ the
Ibid., 38.

negation of the Other in service to the negation/substantiation of the
This is, essentially, a vision of the privileged subject: a unity so
wound up in establishing his own existence that the other exists only in
opposition to him, provided she exists at all (la femme nexiste pas).
And while feminist strategies for countering the disturbing effects of the
erasure of a positive existence sometimes tend to posit a potentially
dangerous and essentialist female subjectivity, this strategy is liable to
create other areas of lack. What is called for is not unification (the
creation of the absolute), but multiplicity: an expanded vision of the self
that does not annihilate others in order to affirm itself. A subjectivity
that is redefined in terms of a multiplicity of layers of experience that
does not privilege rationality as the organizing principle.29 This is the
point of a figurative subject: it allows for a fictive singularity of
experience as a focal point for drawing connections between ideas.
The particular figuration I am working with the transient
subject is marked by both movement and social class. The transient
is, first and foremost, impoverished through the social significance of
her or his body and social identity. The figuration of the transient could,
Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects, 100.

itself, follow a variety of connections again, intellectual or physical -
that absence or want allows as a pivotal identifier. These connections
are the same constellation of connections one must navigate in order
to create her or his identity within a socio-linguistic and socio-cultural
matrix of significance and power relations: some of which present
themselves as chosen by the individual, and others as determined by
the larger culture.
For instance, race can appear to be biologically determined, but
upon closer examination, we find that, [racial] identity can refer to skin
color, hair texture, ancestry, or reputation, [or] status as a group the
founders [of a creed or nation] must have had affirmatively in mind.30
Thus, while race and ethnicity differ from one another in the popular
imagination only in that the former is taken as ontologically prior, these
identities are clearly created. The creation of racial identities, according
to Georgia Warnke, is both a top-down and a bottom-up process in
which macro and micro-levels look into and reinforce one another.31
Likewise, the Hegelian subject is also a creation that is reinforced by
the same reciprocal processes. What grips the discursive imagination
with the staying power of race or individual identity is that which is, of
30 Warnke, After Identity, 66.
31 il:j

course, proper. This was addressed in the previous chapter in terms of
its social, or macro-level significance. Here, I have introduced it in
terms of lack: the poverty of the transient figuration.
The lack of proper significance attached to a persons body
and lived experience does not, in and of itself, establish the transience
of that individual subject. Rather, it is the splitting of goals along the
continuum of social significance that acts as the primary condition for
subjective agency. This is the same point at which Lugones located
fragmentation. I have defined this as a contradictory or contested set of
aims given by the sociolinguistic structure and internalized by the
fragmented subject. Adapted and considered in terms of the figurative
subject, the situation is quite different.
For instance, when it comes to working in with the history of
ideas, female intellectuals must somehow face the presenting lack of
female scholarly accomplishment in the history of academic discourse.
In terms of the present exploration, we must refuse to acknowledge the
severely limited textual history of female scholarly accomplishment in
order to contribute to it. At the same time, we are compelled to admit
that we lack in order to transcend impoverishment as a psychological
condition. This is an enduring manifestation of the woman question

that demonstrates the splitting of subjective aims that marks the
transient subject. In an intellectual culture that forces the denial of lack
while at the same time forcing its affirmation, it is difficult, if not
impossible, to escape the resulting intellectual trap using the logic of
possession. Thus, it seems we must affirm the norm by filling the gap
in womens intellectual contributions. After all, even if it is spotty and
incomplete, women did contribute to the history of ideas.
There is another option. As transient subjects, we might also
incorporate what is missing in order to articulate the embodiment of
absence the history itself contains. The figurative mode, as opposed to
the phallogocentric mode, offers a way out of this predicament by
altering the framework upon which our understanding of possession
and presence is understood. By thinking in terms of conceptual
clusters as opposed to discrete occurrences, it is clear that presence
and absence are connected not only to each other, but also to an
entire linguistic and cultural network of ideas. The figuration allows us
to interpret the conceptual baggage that is tied to these different ideas,
rather than merely interpreting situations in terms of it.
This involves a description of the interplay between the subject
and the culture, or the transient and her physical and intellectual

environment. This, in turn, mirrors the interplay of denial and
overcoming that is transient subjectivity: the consciousness of lack. In
order to overcome conditions of physical impoverishment, the transient
need not deny that the presenting condition of lack is part of the overall
subjective experience. However, in order to overcome
psychological/psychosocial poverty, the subject must admit it; though
not as if it was a deficient, deviant, or insubstantial component of the
larger picture. Rather, it is this type of examination of ones subjective
aims along the continuum of the physical and psychological that moves
the subject toward transience within a radical, postmodern figuration.
The movement between and beyond oppositions created in and
by a particular culture sets the transient into motion. This motion, it
should be noted, creates limitations within the discursive environment,
for the movement of subjects denotes their lack of stability, which
thwarts attempts at possession and control. To put this notion into
context, the female intellectual who contributes to the academic
discourse (particularly in a culture where it was not customary to do
so), does not need to admit her lack of a precedent for doing so, even
though the larger intellectual culture will attempt to force her to explain
herself. However she chooses to handle the situation, she has already
moved beyond the custom. The attempt to either force her to deny the

absence of an historical precedent, or to force her to acknowledge it is
merely an attempt to lure her back to a conceptual space where she is
more easily contained.
A Figurative Philosophy
Margaret Cavendish provided an early articulation this notion of
transient agency. While she was certainly not poor, the Duchess of
Newcastle has been characterized as wanting in both sense and
sanity. Until recently, most scholars were introduced to the Mad
Duchess by Virginia Woolf, who, in A Room of Ones Own, described
her as a hare-brained woman whose intelligence poured itself out
higgledy-piggledy, in torrents of [...] poetry and philosophy.32 And
while many of Cavendishs contemporaries did not share Woolfs
opinion, she certainly had no shortage of critics. One of those, Dorothy
Osborne, believed there were, many soberer People in Bedlam, than
Margaret Cavendish.33 Samuel Pepys noted that he did not like the
Duchess due to, among other things, the fact that her dress [was]
antick.34 And while these quotes are far from evidence of Cavendishs
mental state, the fact that the question of her sanity seems to have had
a bearing on her place in the history of thought is important. It
32 Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, 61.
33 Battigelli, Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind, 4.
34 The Conway Letters, 178.

establishes her in a position of split-separation wherein her soberness
of mind and respective ability to posit ideas contrary to the norm
presented itself as an issue. Yet this is not the only thing the Duchess
As a woman in seventeenth-century England, Cavendish was
not afforded a formal education; a fact she addressed in her published
work. For Cavendish, as for Astell, womens lack of knowledge was an
unnatural condition forced upon them by social norms which prevented
them from learning and then subsequently blamed them for their
ignorance. Still, Cavendish took a different tack on the matter than
Astell: rather than arguing strongly in favor of womens education, she
quipped that learning is artificial, but wit is natural.35 In an ironic
juxtaposition to charges against her sanity, Cavendish posited that
women are already as smart as they need to be in order to learn. It
was only the stupidity of the learned that kept them from it.
Upon reading Henry Mores thoughts on Cavendish, it becomes
clear that the Duchess also lacked a social position low enough that
another person could disagree with her openly. The preeminent
scholar in the group known today as the Cambridge Platonists, Mores
35 Cavendish, Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy. 11.

philosophical views were quite different from Cavendishs. In a private
exchange with Anne Conway (who, it should be noted, had also written
a work of philosophy which was published posthumously), More
sarcastically referred to Cavendish as a, great philosopher,36 and
later wrote that, she is affrayed some man should quitt his breeches
and putt on a petticoat to answer her in that disguise.37 The latter
seems to have come in response to Cavendishs public charge that no
one would engage her in a philosophical debate because, no man
dare or will set his name to the contradiction of a lady.38 This was not
a simple case of misogyny. Mores correspondence with Conway
notwithstanding, his reluctance to respond to Cavendish was
warranted on two counts: first, she outranked him socially, and second,
she had broken the social norms of gender-appropriate discourse.
It is difficult not to find connections between Cavendishs
presumed madness and this breach in social etiquette. One can only
imagine her frustration when she received a letter from More in thanks
for giving him her books, in which he admitted that he had not even
taken the time to read them.39 By way of an explanation, he suggested
36 The Conway Letters, 237.
37 Ibid.
38 Whitaker, Mad Madge, 315.
39 The Conway Letters, 241.

that her gesture of unparalleled goodness in sending the books was,
in truth a, searching out [of] Objects of such condescending Acts of
Civility [that might have been found] in these obscure corners of
Academical Retirement.40 In other words, he thought that she would
use any response he might have sent as an endorsement of her
eminence as a philosopher; a stamp of approval that he was loathe to
offer. This, even though he freely admitted that he had no direct
knowledge of what she had written.
In sum, Cavendish lacked (the presumption of) sanity, social
standing low enough that she could be publically opposed, a formal
education, the correct gender to engage in public discourse, and an
educated readership. The splitting of subjective aims, then, is complex
in Cavendishs case. She was asked to both deny and embrace her
intelligence, her social position, her education, and her gender. For her
part, Cavendish sorted through these issues openly in her published
works, wherein we find all manner of deviant others: transgender
heroes and heroines, witches and alchemists, philosophers shaped
like beasts, and more. Here, it will be most helpful to focus on
Cavendishs struggle to relate the active life to the contemplative
(individual to culture; public to private): a struggle that provides a focal
40 The Conway Letters, 241.

point for the multiple questions and issues surrounding her person and
Cavendish can be figured as a transient subject by virtue of the
perception of lack that is attached to both her persona and her body of
work. The split-separation of subjective aims evident in the content and
reception of her work, and the movement of her thoughts through a
presenting contestation of ideas provide further evidence for her
transient status. According to Richard Johnson Sheehan and Denise
Tillary there were two major scientific worldviews in competition with
one another in late seventeenth-century England: Aristotelian
organicism and Enlightenment mechanism. Whereas the Aristotelian
camp conceptualized itself as part of the great chain of being [...]
occupying a natural place in both natural and social hierarchies, the
mechanists urged people to view the universe as though it were a
machine of non-sentient, spiritless moving parts which are acted upon
by forces.41 While certainly simplified, this reconstruction of ideas
within the broader socio-linguistic milieu in operation at the time
provides the cultural framework within which Cavendish wrote. This is
the intellectual environment within which Margaret Cavendish wrote
and published Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy, wherein
41 Sheehan and Tillary, "Margaret Cavendish, Natural Philosopher," 69-70.

she attempted to negotiate between two radically different scientific
paradigms supported by two incompatible metaphors.42 In a word,
Cavendish found a path through the space between the two, which is
exactly what a transient figuration is designed to do. Thus, Cavendish
is an example of transient subjectivity at work.
In a chapter titled An Argumental Discourse, Cavendish
debates with herself over the veracity of her natural philosophy;
particularly her inclusion of inanimate matter in her account of the
various categories of matter the natural universe is composed of. This
dialectic takes on an interesting form: not only is it a discourse
between the rational parts of her own mind, but Cavendish did not
believe a discourse required language. Instead, discourse was:
an arguing of the mind, or a rational enquiry into the causes of
natural effects; for discourse is as much as reasoning with
ourselves; which may very well be done without speech or
language, as being only an effect or action of reason.43
This suggests a multiple subject that is prior to language. I find further
evidence for this reading in that Cavendish pluralized those aspects of
her rational thoughts that were in disagreement. When one set of
Cavendishs thoughts respond to the other, they tell the former
42 Ibid., 69.
43 Cavendish, Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy, 14.

thoughts this or that, or we admonish that we have already
responded to an objection. While it might appear so on the surface,
Cavendishs An Argumental Discourse is not an attempt at a simple
dialectic: this is a multiple fracture of the rational parts of her mind
along one major point. It should come as no surprise, then, that the
point at which her thoughts are split into two factions is related to the
idea of a third category of matter that provides a balance between
extremes. In order to demonstrate how this third form of matter
operates in her scheme of subjective patterning (what we might think
of as learning) I must first summarize her arguments.
According to Cavendish, the body of Nature is composed of
three distinct categories of matter: rational, sensible, and inanimate.
The body of nature is infinite and self-moving, and all of the categories
of matter are so bound up with one another that one cannot be
separated out from the others without destroying the material thing
they compose.44 The sensible and inanimate categories are both gross
forms of matter, and the self-moving sensible matter is responsible for
the movement of the inanimate; that is, the sensible matter carries or
sets inanimate matter into motion. The sensible matter, by contrast, is
not moved by other animate forms of gross matter, but is instead
44 Ibid., 31-32

occasioned to motion by them 45 This occasioning is a dull and distant
remnant of the sort of activities the rational matter participates in, and
explains actions undertaken by the self-moving sensible matter that
are learned by experience, or rote. Any sort of unthinking activity we
engage in falls into this category of occasioning: when we find we
cannot remember having driven from one place to another, or when we
move to pick up an object and discover our fingers have bent in just
the right formation to lift it, we are experiencing the effects of this
manner of learning.
The rational matter, which is both self-moving and subtle
(imperceptible except through the direct experience of thinking, or
through its effects when it comes to other minds), does not learn
through occasions, which is the only way sensible matter can retain
information. Rather, the rational matter learns and retains information
through a process of figuring or patterning.46 This process allows us to
see distinctions in the various categories of matter, and the degrees
thereof (heavy, light, dull, sharp, etcetera) by way of impressing itself
upon them. As Cavendish puts it, this process is clearly different from
the process of occasioning in that the rational matter retains the
45 Ibid., 21
46 Ibid., 33

impression of the thing it was in contact with, whereas so soon as the
object is removed, the sensitive perception is altered.47 That is, we
might have a vivid dream about touching this or that (which is an action
of the rational matter), but the perception of touch as touch leaves us
as soon as the contact between our skin and an object ceases. Thus
patterning is a process of reasoning through the composition of some
distinct part of nature in relation to the other parts (inanimate, sensitive,
and rational). It is rational, but not incorporeal.
The analogy I want to make is this: in Cavendishs decidedly
empirical philosophy of mind, she manages to unite mind and matter in
such a way that particulars are figured as infinite. In the rational matter,
it is possible to retain the memory of an object while ensuring it has a
physical existence. In order to accomplish this feat, Cavendish thought
it necessary to include some degree of inanimate matter to provide a
counterbalance to the animate.48 Her metaphor of choice is the
balancing of opposites along a compositional triad: were there no
degree of inanimate matter, natures actions would run into extremes;
but because all her actions are balanced by opposites, they hinder
both extremes in nature, and produce all that harmonious variety that
47 Ibid.
48 Ibid.

is found in natures parts.49 Neither completely vitalistic, nor entirely
mechanistic, Cavendishs ideas on nature unite self and other, culture
and individual, animate and inanimate, and all other extremes in such
a way that even the most transient of subjects can actively participate
in the reconfiguration of nature.
This path between extremes between arguments that are
incompatible according to the discursive mode they were generated in
and understood through is a location from which a subject might
effect change. In terms of Cavendishs thought, it is the space where
the rational matter contemplates the patterns it has learned, the space
between opposites occupied alternately by the various parts of matter
(sensitive, inanimate, and rational). It is the location from which the
inanimate matter provides a counter balance for the self-moving forms
of matter (the mechanistic to the vitalistic), and the space from which
the rational can operate as both a self-moving agent and a finely
occasioned (patterned) repository of knowledge.
A trope in Cavendishs body of work, the connections between
all forms and configurations of matter act simultaneously as
connections between ideas. Indeed, all ideas are contained therein. If
49 Ibid., 33-34

Braidotti is correct, then thinking is life lived at the highest possible
power thinking is about finding new images, new representations.
Thinking is about change and transformation.50 Mind and body unite in
Cavendishs configuration of matter. It is only a matter of finding the
points of connection points often hidden in language.
Figuring the Past
Thinking through the figuration provides an escape through the
false dichotomies perpetuated by a discourse enamored with its own
substantiation/annihilation. Containment, the psychological condition of
being trapped by the physical implications of a discourse (i.e., being
female in a masculine intellectual tradition), is thwarted by the
assumption of the transient identity embodied absence in motion.
The figuration can account for nearly any manifestation of these
conditions (that is, embodiment, impoverishment, and movement), and
provide a platform upon which we can examine and describe the
connections between them in a given time, place, or conceptual space.
In this paper, I have written about two seventeenth-century
English women philosophers: Margaret Cavendish and Mary Astell.
The differences in their lives and their ideas pose an insurmountable
problem in the dominant discursive mode because they are so widely
50 Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects, 101.

divergent from one another that there dont seem to be any
connections between them. Well, none save for the fact that both
philosophers were women. Whereas Cavendish published plays and
poetry in addition to works of philosophy, Astell abhorred creative
fiction and focused her attention primarily on political philosophy and
theology. Astell published all of her work anonymously. Cavendish,
who had no fear of any backlash against her for publishing under her
own name, used her high social rank to her advantage in a failed quest
to gain the admiration of the intellectual elite. Indeed, one can find few
similarities between either their texts or the details we know about their
personal lives. That is precisely where thinking between the positively
affirmed aspects of the discourse becomes useful: the figuration
provides just the sort of intellectual lens that allows for a comparative
reading of the lives, times, and works of these two very different
women because it does not give preference to their presence, or what
they said or did, but to what is missing.
What is present is a textual history, or historiography, that gives
us insight into both womens lives and ideas. The topics they chose to
write on, the style of rhetoric they employed to carry their points, the
degree of attention each woman paid to detail in her work: these are
the presenting facts. To focus on these facts alone, however, in the

attempt to reconstruct the social situation of publishing in a time when
womens intellectual accomplishments presented themselves as a
vacuum of knowledge (i.e., when history provided little precedent for
their work) would be to make exceptions of the present in an attempt to
gain possession over knowledge. In a word, to deny the lack is a way
of containing its extent, and to split the subjective aims of the
philosophers themselves.
Seen as transients, Cavendish and Astell share and embody
this historical absence: the same absence that denied them intellectual
authority in their own time. That is the social situation, as noted earlier,
that attempts to force the transient to admit the absence (in this case,
of a precedent for female participation in the public exchange of ideas)
in order to overcome it. Of course, once she accepts this lack, she is
forced to explain it. Transcendence does not allow for embodiment.
The fact that both women do attempt to provide evidence for their own
authority can mean they assumed, or fell prey to, an ideology of
possession and property. However, when viewed in light of the
transient function of mobility, these explanations, especially when read
in light of each womans philosophical thoughts, exemplifies her status
as transient. Each in her own way, Astell and Cavendish moved

beyond the physical and psychological limitations imposed on them by
the larger culture.
Changing the Discourse: It Ends at the Beginning
Initially, I wanted to write about the specific philosophical
debates that were taking place between anonymous women
philosophers. I wanted to map the both margins of their work and the
marginality of their reception. The problem I consistently encountered
was that they were not writing about the things I wanted them to have
been writing about. Their interests were not my own. While, for
instance, Mary Astells work on theology in the Rationalist tradition fit
my interests on some level, her political writings did not speak to my
concerns at all. In essence, what was present was not to my liking -
the presence of Astells work did not explain the anonymity, or absence
of identity, of her authorship. In order to discuss the actual works of
women philosophers, I needed to see them differently; that is, I could
not focus on the presence of a text while contemplating the symbolic
absence of its author in a meaningful way. The figuration of the
transient, however, allows me to examine and interpret both Astells
work and her authorship as a symbiotic relationship between presence
and absence, possession and impoverishment, stability and motion. I
needed to think beyond what is in order to understand it. That shift in

perspective allows for a reading of the texts Astell actually wrote, as
opposed to those non-extent texts I once wished she had written.
I offer this example not only to demonstrate the rhizomatic mode
of analysis I have employed in this paper, but also to highlight another
pitfall in the application of a figurative logic of discourse: that of
mistaking desire for absence. While desire is part of the subjective
experience of the transient subject, the distinction itself has a practical
function. That particular desire implies an end that is falsely
descriptive: I wanted Astell to have written about the things I am
interested in. However, the point of the figuration is to suggest ways
out of conceptual traps like this. My desire will not be satisfied because
it makes demands on an historical embodiment, in this case, a non-
extent text. In that sense, the desire does not show the way out of a
conceptual trap, but creates it by luring me back into the logic of
possession. Desire, if descriptive, is also possessive. To embrace the
absence of such a text, on the other hand, is to move toward the
prescriptive: to wit, just because Astell did not write it does not mean it
should not be written.
This example also draws attention to an inescapable situation: I
am subjectively wound up in the analysis. This is, to a certain extent,
the condition in which all scholars write. People, not disembodied

minds, are responsible for absorbing information through research.
People organize the data they glean, and people set it to the page. I do
not pretend to some lofty ideal of objectivity wherein the mind is
completely uninfluenced by personal history or the daily demands of
embodiment. This does not mean, however, that I am determined to
make this paper a memoir to my own interests. Again I am referring to
the distinction I made a moment ago between desire and absence, or
description and prescription: my subjective participation in this paper is
also transient. I am connected to this project at the same junctures that
Astell and Cavendish are connected to each other: namely, the fluidity
of the psychological and physical experience of lack. This is an
intersubjective project, and my position as the channel through which
these concepts take a physical form on the page is privileged, but
hopefully not carelessly so. I hope that my position as author might
honor those who came before me, those by whom my work is
supported, and those who read what I have written.
And, of course, I hope my work honors those who influence my
ideas silently and from afar. I am reminded of the immediacy of the
problem of oppression nearly every day. Even as I write this sentence,
the City Council where I live is considering an ordinance against
camping on public property; a measure that will, I fear, have an

extremely deleterious impact on the more than two-hundred people
who are homeless and currently camping in public spaces. These
individuals, who cannot afford to live indoors, may soon be cited and
fined for living out of them. I can hardly think of a more perfect (and
perfectly horrible) example of a split separation of subjective aims than
to be forced to pay for not having the money to avoid breaking the law.
In this paper, I have attempted to provide a solution to an issue
that has been widely identified by advocates for social justice: the
problematic way discourse has conditioned people in the Western
world to think in terms of simple dualisms. My proposed solution
identified the location of subjective agency in the spaces between
dichotomous arguments, and connected it to individual subjects
through a process of thinking about and in terms of what is missing in
the dominant discourse. I have demonstrated these concepts in a wide
variety of contexts, both contemporary and historical, and connected
them to the work of several theoretical perspectives, both Western and
non-Western. Finally, I offered several examples of the immediacy of
the problem for people who are underprivileged and oppressed.
Ultimately, I write from a blank space; a space that exists between
being and transcendence. My hope is that in offering this partial
solution to the problems plaguing both marginalized and marginalizing

people, my work will prove a valuable contribution to the project of
ending injustice.

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