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John Zaixin Zhang

 
 
 

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Feminist Theory  

2009-09-12 00:28:07|  分类: 女性主义 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Final Exam (Take-home)

Student Essay

A Complementary Interpretation of Maternity by Beauvoir and Kristeva

 

The Second Sex by Simon de Beauvoir has attracted a lot of critical attention since its publication. It is a monumental book in that it marks a new age for feminist studies. Many feminist theorists and critics find the ideas expressed in this book worthy of attention. One of them is Julia Kristeva, a representative of postmodern feminism. She is very critical of Beauvoir, which is shown in her essay titled “Women’s Time” (1986). Despite the disagreement Kristeva holds with Beauvoir, Zerilli thinks that Beauvior and Kristeva actually complement each other in their interpretations of maternity.

Kristeva accuses Beauvoir of rejecting “the attributes traditionally considered feminine or maternal” and of pursuing an “identity between the two sexes” (193, 195). She thinks that by rejecting maternity, Beauvoir and the first generation of feminists have foreclosed the question of what the desire for motherhood corresponds to. But Zerilli points out that Beauvoir does not foreclose the question but makes it possible by “creating an alternative space” in which to consider the problem (115). She thinks that what Beauvoir suggests is not a rejection of motherhood, but a rejection of the beautified image imposed by patriarchal society on mothers. In other words, Beauvoir is using a new discursive strategy to unsettle the traditional image of the mother, or rather, the female.

 This discursive strategy refers to the idea that we can use patriarchal language to reinterpret what it means to be a mother and what it means to be a female. In patriarchal society, female desire is wholly equated with maternal desire. And men impose this ideology on women to silence their complex and diverse experiences and feelings. For example, pregnancy is seen by many as “a blissful coexistence between the fetus and the mother-to-be” (Zerilli 119). They think it’s a “normal process” that is “not harmful” but “beneficial” to the mother (Beauvoir 33). This is what patriarchal society takes it to be. But Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, gives us a horrific picture of the maternal body. She describes that the fetus is like “a parasitic body” residing in the mother-to-be (Beauvoir 25-26). Her unconventional description is quite bold and astounding to the proponents of patriarchal society. By speaking of pregnancy in a different way, Beauvoir marks the once familiar idea of maternal desire unfamiliar. The once natural function of the female is now spoken of as unnatural. This process is what Zerilli calls “defamiliarization” and denaturalization (112). By doing so, Beauvoir questions and subverts the conventional patriarchal views. She has also shown the complexity of maternal desire which was unknown to us before. It is not the singular and unified masculinist values of maternity that matter but the diversity of female experiences that should be taken into account.

However, Kristeva disagrees in that she thinks women cannot use patriarchal language to describe her fluid, rhythmic and diverse desires. She sees the maternal space as the preconscious womb or chora, defining it as a “matrix space, nourishing, unnameable, anterior to the One, to God and, consequently defying metaphysics” (862). In other words, chora represents a state of chaos, which can not be described by the rational, unified and systematic patriarchal language. Such a space is prelinguistic, heterogeneous and unsignifiable. Since women dwell in such a chaotic and unsystematic “maternal space beyond paternal time” (Zerilli 131), Kristeva thinks the dominant discourse, that is, patriarchal language, cannot be used to describe the complex female experience. Although Beauvoir agrees with Kristeva that the maternal body is a place where there is no clear distinction between the subject and the other, nor any sense of clear identity, yet Beauvoir does not reduce women to the silence of chora. For Beauvoir, reducing women to silence means depriving her of the right as a speaking subject. Instead, she thinks one can set up a conceptual space within the maternal body and use the language “deviously” to voice female desire in “its social and psychic complexity”(Zerilli 115). By placing oneself in another space rather than the mute maternal space, one can use paternal language to offer alternative interpretations of maternity. This is what Zerilli calls “displacement,” which she thinks Beauvoir is suggesting women to adopt in order to subvert the maternal image distorted by patriarchal society (Zerilli 113).

Beauvoir has also been accused of her “naive acceptance of biological facts” (Seigfried 308). She is charged with this because she adopts the authoritative scientific discourse to talk about female biology. Zerilli finds Beauvoir mimicking this scientific language only to expose how absurd it is to deduce “the reproductive function of the woman from that of the female, the passivity of the female from the egg” (118). It is not biological determinism that Beauvoir advocates. She merely uses it to let people see how ridiculous it is to say female destiny is determined by her biology. She is using the dominant discourse to disrupt the socially constructed view that female desire is equated with maternal desire.

Then where does this monolithic view of maternity come from? Why does society show us the image of sacred mother who is nurturing and comforting? These questions can be best explained by Kristeva’s theory of abjection and Beauvoir’s horror of the maternal body combined. According to Elizabeth Grosz, “abjection is a reaction to the recognition of the impossible but necessary transcendence of the subject’s corporeality, and the impure, defiling elements of its uncontrollable materiality” (Fletcher 87). In other words, the maternal body reminds men of their animal ties, their mortality and the impure elements in them. In order to be completely separated from this undesirable and dirty part of them, men project it onto the (m)other. Seeing women as the other, they get the delusion that they come into the world by themselves. They are autonomous and independent beings, who are immortal and not subject to the contingencies of the flesh. However, the very other is still in every man. Actually, both men and women have their animal ties and many repressed undersides. By projecting these undesirable qualities onto women, men think they have discarded them. However, men can not deny the fact that they come from the womb and are psychologically attached to it. As Zerilli points out: “Beauvoir shows that man’s dread of the female body is at bottom a terror of the maternal body that menaces his claims to self-generation and autonomy, a terror he masks with the ideology of sacred maternity” (126). That is to say, in order to see themselves as ideal, as the absolute spirit instead of body, men have to regard mother as pure and sacred instead of profane and carnal. The menace of maternal body is so horrific that they have to veil this terror with eulogy.

In order to debunk this kind of masculinist values of maternity, Beauvoir helps us find a space from which women can show us the diverse sides of what it feels to be a woman. However, Kristeva thinks that since women exist in such a chaotic and heterogeneous maternal space, it is impossible to describe it in paternal time which is characterized by order, system and logic. In this case, Zerilli sides with Beauvoir and thinks that women can not become subjects not because of their position in unnamable space, but because they are constrained by patriarchal ideology. Thus only when women come to know the trap society has set for them and realize they can use language as a weapon to fight back, can they become a speaking subject.

Therefore, Zerilli writes this paper to clarify that Beauvoir is not a spokesperson of masculinist ideas who upholds rationality and logic but a daring rebel who subverts the patriarchal myth of maternity. She thinks the discursive strategy proposed by Beauvoir and Kristeva’s theory of abjection is complementary. Thus only with these two feminists’ interpretations can we come to a better and more comprehensive understanding of maternity and female experience.

 

Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Ed. and trans. H. M. Parshley. New York: Vintage Books, 1974 [1949].

Fletcher, John, and Andrew Benjamin, ed. Abjection, Melancholia and Love: the Work of Julia Kristeva. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Grosz, Elizabeth. “The Body of Signification.” Abjection, Melancholia and Love: the Work of Julia Kristeva. Ed. John Fletcher and Andrew Benjamin. New York: Routledge, 1990. 80-103.

Kristeva, Julia. “Women’s Time.” Feminism: an Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1997. 860-79.

Seigfried, Charlene Haddock. “Second Sex: Second Thoughts.” Hypatia Reborn. Ed. Azizah Y. Al-Hibri and Margaret A. Simons. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. 305-22.

Zerilli, Linda M.G. “A Process without a Subject.” In Signs 18.1 (1992): 111-35.

 

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