Simone de Beauvoir, “The Second Sex”


Existentialist Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in a little over a year. It forms the foundation of the literature of second-wave feminism. In the introduction, de Beauvoir points out that men occupy both the positive and neutral gender valences in society, while women are the negative, the limitation, and the lack 5. The tie that binds women to her oppressors is unique because she cannot leave him, because it is a relation that has always been – it is ahistorical 9. Like Woolf, she observes that men always find even the smartest women to be reflections of their most average ranks 13. “How, in the feminine condition, can a human being accomplish herself?” 17.

The book’s first section, “Destiny,” examines biology, psychoanalysis, and socialism all as modes that have insufficiently constituted women and sexual difference. Her biological approach acknowledges that women are weaker, but fails to grasp how that still matters in contemporary society, for “her body is not enough to define her” 48 and “a society is not a species: the species realizes itself in society; it transcends itself toward the world and the future; its customs cannot be deduced from biology… it is not as a body but as a body subjected to taboos and laws that the subject gains consciousness of and accomplishes himself” 47. Her review of psychoanalysis contends that Freud takes drives as givens and does not account for their origins. He even admits that he accepts the father’s sovereignty of male supremacy as a given without seeking its origin. Psychoanalysis’ ‘scientific’ divide of clitoral (male) and vaginal (female) aspects of women attempts to make psychic life a mosaic, but like Woolf, de Beauvoir contends that “it is altogether complete in every one of its moments” 54. In this system, woman struggles to “accomplish herself as transcendence” rather than immanence 60. (In Husserl’s terms, the transcendent object is real, complex, and whole, while the immanent object is aesthetic, conceptual, finite, and metonymous). Finally, her section on Marxism claims that reducing women to a “class” like the proletariat is unsuitable. Historical materialism has its limits, and gender busts them 64. Man apprehended woman as property, but we cannot “deduce woman’s oppression from private property” 65. The USSR has struggled to treat female workers equally and to allow for gestation and recovery: “it has asked woman to become an erotic object again” 67. All these theories have value, but are insufficient.

In “History,” de Beauvoir explores how men came to oppress women. She concludes, like Woolf and Freidan, that it is not female inferiority that has made them insignificant, but insignificance which has rendered them inferior. The “dependent consciousness” of Hegel’s master-slave dynamic would be better suited to man-woman, since the rule of life that defines her as immanence and man as transcendence “rivets her to her body” (an existentialist approach) 75. In history, when men are still subject to the earth, woman is vital; the struggle to be free from mother earth is imagined as a great struggle in men’s writing 88. Though she is indispensable, “by total annexation, woman will be lowered to the rank of a thing” 89. She is dethroned by private property and then becomes it. Christianity intensifies this: “in a religion where the flesh is cursed, the woman becomes the devil’s most fearsome temptation” 104. Like Foucault’s power structures, de Beauvoir contends that “so many factors converge to thwart woman’s independence that they are never all abolished simultaneously” 109. Much of this is also tied to the mythos of female evil. Though there is room in Christianity to see woman as “better,” these examples are twisted to mean the opposite. The French Revolution was bourgeois in nature and did not alter things 126. Balzac says, “The married woman is a slave who must be seated on a throne” 129. Bourgeois woman “clings to her chains because she clings to her class privileges” 130 [Friedan]. Socialism favors her liberation, but it is tied up in reproduction, which must be reconciled with production 136. Abortion is still illegal but birth control is widespread. de Beauvoir also points to the benefits of capitalism: capital flows and the individual rules, making divorce and independence more possible 140. On the flip side, pressures of appearance and elegance constrain American women 154. (Female sovereigns escape these issues by androgyny.) Like Woolf: “a great man springs from the mass and is carried by circumstances: the mass of women is at the fringes of history, and for each of them circumstances are an obstacle and not a springboard” 151. Stendahl: “all the geniuses who are born women are lost for the public good” 152.

In “Myths,” de Beauvoir considers that women must be viewed how men view her. Central to the myths of women and their fertility are horror and disgust. Women are said to spoil things, to be spoiled, to be on the edge of foul and mysterious cycles that lead men to prioritize their mystical, symbolic, and immanent value. It is almost impossible for them to “assume both their status of autonomous individual and their feminine destiny… ‘a lost sex’… it is more comfortable to endure blind bondage than to work for one’s liberation; the dead, too, are better suited to the earth than the living” 274 [Friedan]. Women can only be freed by men who assume new positions appropriate to a changing situation 274 [feminism is bisexual].

In “Childhood” and “The Girl,” de Beauvoir rejects Freud’s theory of penis envy. This is the chapter that begins, “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” 283. The girl does not experience herself as lack, but plenitude 287. She is aware of her differences from boys in social treatment, and may envy the boy for standing urination. The penis is metonymous and animated; the doll with which the girl is compensated is whole and passive 293. Even if the girl does not envy the penis, she sees that it gains something for the boy. The girl begins to learn that the father’s authority is large and is not wasted on trivial matters 299. She understands her body as lack, wound, shame, illness, and crime 340. Older girls cope with the shock of menstruation and the disgust of understanding sex in a variety of ways. These experiences remain with her throughout life. In “The Girl,” the girl learns to model herself on the dreams of others – to negate the self for man, leading to dissatisfaction and narcissism [she cites Katherine Mansfield’s “Prelude”] 352. Woman desires male attention and fears it, is disgusted by it 364. She also addresses the “curse” of lesbian desire, which she argues is neither deliberate nor perversion.

“The Married Woman” focuses on the “absurdity” of asking two people to satisfy one another sexually forever. Marriage almost always “destroys a woman” with dullness and labor. In “The Mother,” she advocates for abortions as safe and offers socialist childrearing communities as an alternative to the nuclear family.  In “Social Life” and “Woman’s Situation and Character,” de Beauvoir claims the distractions of amusement and labor that keep women from fulfilling intellectual life. She also considers their transition into menopause, which may cause homosexual desire and depression.

“Justifications,” consisting of “The Narcissist,” “The Woman in Love,” and “The Mystic,” are musings on women outside these norms. Towards the end of the 750-page book are “The Independent Woman” and a “Conclusion.” The first suggests artists, dancers, and Bronte and Woolf as women able to escape the sadism and masochism of culture, approaching the “inhuman freedom” of nature. In the conclusion, de Beauvoir imagines a utopia the USSR promised but did not deliver:

“Women raised and educated exactly like men would work under the same conditions and for the same salaries; erotic freedom would be accepted by custom, but the sexual act would no longer be considered a remunerable “service”; women would be obliged to provide another livelihood for themselves; marriage would be based on a free engagement that the spouses could break when they wanted to; motherhood would be freely chosen—that is, birth control and abortion would be allowed—and in return all mothers and their children would be given the same rights; maternity leave would be paid for by the society that would have responsibility for the children, which does not mean that they would betaken from their parents but that they would not be abandoned to them” 759.

This failure, in the USSR as much as in France or the US, is why “woman is torn between the past and the present; most often, she appears as a ‘real woman’ disguised as a man, and she feels as awkward in her woman’s body as in her masculine garb” 761. To reconcile this, both men and women must sacrifice. In economic terms, woman must sacrifice her sense of self as “priceless” [Friedan’s ‘feminine mystique’], while man must share experience, power, and domestic work. “Men and women must, among other things and beyond their natural differentiations, unequivocally affirm their brotherhood” 766. [not in love with this as the last word, haha!]




Theodor Adorno, “Aesthetic Theory”


Adorno’s approach to aesthetics eschews the division between philosophy, methodology, and the subdisciplines of the arts he studies. (This reminds me of Deleuze & Guattari’s open approach.) The text sets up a dialectic between modern art and philosophical aesthetics, using each to reconstruct the other synthetically and historically. He called this mode of “paratactical presentation” (recall Pound’s ‘paratactical’ concatenated poetics, versus Williams’ more subordinated, ‘hypostatic,’ and vertical poetics) a mode of “atonal philosophy.”

Adorno questions whether art can survive in late capitalism (following on Hegel) and whether it can transform that world if it does survive (following on Marx). Adorno insists that if it does, it must retain “formal autonomy,” which Kant also insists on. However, he combines this formal element with one of content – Hegel’s insistence on “intellectual import” and Marx’s notion that art is “embedded” in society. Thus, paradoxically, the artwork must be autonomous, but that autonomy is always somewhat illusory. Modern art seeks to synthesize this paradox: it is “the social antithesis of society” 8.

“Authentic” works of modern art are “social monads” whose tensions express conflicts in the sociohistory from which they emerge. (In Leibniz’s terms, the monads have a sort of fractal logic – they are all a whole, but they are all also independent down the scale.) Recall that Marx, Benjamin, and Jameson, of course, also identify art as conditioned by means of production, and that, in a more tempered vein, Raymond Williams claimed that it would be as foolish to assume that a work of art could be completely free of its economic base of production as it would be to assume the opposite (its complete dependence). The tensions of these “social monads” enter the work through the artist’s struggle with the conditions of production (as materially bound as they are to history). For Adorno, this often causes works to be ‘misread.’ Adorno seeks to resolve some of these tensions, though it would be impossible to resolve them all in our current situation.

Most of the resolution of these contradictions occurs through polarities or pairs, in the dialectical fashion. Whereas hermeneutics would emphasize the import (Gehalt) of a work’s cultural meaning and empiricism would emphasize the causal relations inherent to the function (Funktion) of a work’s political purpose, Adorno wants to understand how these two categories relate to one another. The two categories can be opposed, united, or mixed in a work, but they inform each other. He generally falls in favor of Gehalt, however, stating that “Insofar as a social function can be predicated for artworks, it is their functionlessness” 227. Thus, Adorno favors art that is socially meaningful and socially mediated, rather than that created expressly for political service (he dislikes positivism and instrumentalized reason). Something of this resonates with Kant’s free beauty – a “purposiveness without purpose,” a beauty that exceeds function.

Art should not be merely aesthetic, even if the structures of capitalism will only strangle purely resistant art. Art must be independent and beautiful, not didactic, but also politically engaged. Thus art must work out its own internal contradictions so that the viewer/reader cannot ignore the “hidden” contradictions of society. This is why Adorno loves Beckett, whose work he finds the quintessence of this aesthetic, and to whom he dedicates the volume.

Adorno’s main focus is ultimately on the dialectical and nonpropositional “truth content” of art, in which Gehalt (import) is itself a dialectic between content and form. One can judge art’s internal and external truth content – its own dynamics as well as those of the sociohistory in which it was produced. Art looks to change but does not enact it: “Art has truth as the semblance of the illusionless” 132. Thus truth content is

“Not a metaphysical idea or essence hovering outside the artwork. But neither is it a merely human construct. It is historical but not arbitrary; nonpropositional, yet calling for propositional claims to be made about it; utopian in its reach, yet firmly tied to specific societal conditions. Truth content is the way in which an artwork simultaneously challenges the way things are and suggests how things could be better, but leaves things practically unchanged” [SEP]

Like Virginia Woolf, Adorno holds 1910 as the year when art set out toward “the inconceivable.” Art has lost its naivete and should no longer seek to offer solace. It must “turn against itself” and be self conscious. It attacks what has seemed to be its foundation. Art is what it has become – like Benjamin, Adorno believes it is fruitless to argue, then whether film is art. Art is both a part of its historical moment and supersedes it (Madame Bovary). Here are a couple of quotes I’d like to remember from the first chapter:

“The unsolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as immanent problems of form. This, not the insertion of objective elements, defines the relation of art to society. The complex of tensions in artworks crystallizes undisturbed in these problems of form and through emancipation from the external world’s factual facade converges with the real essence. Art… takes up a position to it in accord with Hegel’s argument against Kant: The moment a limit is posited, it is overstepped and that against which the limit was established is absorbed… Art is autonomous and it is not; without what is heterogenous to it, its autonomy eludes it” 6.

“Only dilettantes reduce everything in art to the unconscious, repeating cliches… the sharpest sense of reality was joined with estrangement from reality… If art has psychoanalytic roots, then they are the roots of fantasy in the fantasy of omnipotence” 9.

Where Freud sees art without distance, as wish fulfillment, Kant overstates this with distance, severing art from desire and fragmenting the subject 10.


Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality”


“So natural is the impulse to narrate, so inevitable is the form of narrative for any report of the way things really happened, that narrativity could appear problematical only in a culture in which it was absent – absent or, as in some domains of contemporary Western intellectual and artistic culture, programmatically refused” 5.

Narrative is how we “translate knowing into telling, the problem of fashioning human experience into a form assimilable to structures of meaning that are generally human rather than culture-specific” 5 [fashioning, faceting]. Narrative is, as Barthes says, “translatabel without fundamental damage” 6. It is not a code among many, but a metacode. Is a refusal of narrative the absence of meaning itself?

We either openly  narrate or we covertly narrativize 7. In the latter, “events seem to tell themselves” 8. This is artificial, since we demand a difference between real and imaginary now. History is the space where the imaginary is tied to the factual. For White, what is true reads as real “only insofar as it can be shown to posses the character of narrativity,” potentially a psychological issue 10.

He gives the example of “liminal” or “extreme” events recorded by monks in Gaul in the 8th century. It is emptied out of causality, agency, and relative temporality. The list of years goes on after the data runs out, and there are many gaps. Crucially, every narrative, no matter how full, leaves things out that might have been included. Therefore “we must conclude that [the list] is a product of an image of reality in which the social system, which alone could provide the diacritical markers for ranking the importance of events, is only minimally present to the consciousness of the writer, or, rather, is present as a factor in the composition of the discourse only by virtue of its absence” 14. It is a very lack of agency that the liminal events suggest to this culture – they are at the mercy of the events, so the historian’s agency is likewise effaced.

Hegel claimed that happy years were “blank pages” in history [think about this with the nostalgia film!] and that “a genuinely historical account had to display not only a certain form, that is, the narrative, but also a certain content, namely, a political-social order” 15. The reality of narration is “the conflict between desire, on the one side, and the law, on the other” 16.

If narrative is not mere sequence, doesn’t it always seek to moralize? The Gaul annalist does not organize by time but theme, imaginatively organized by “the Lord.” The chronicle, on the other hand, at least appears to unfold a plot – it is “a self-conscious fashioning activity” that presents itself as some kind of authority or force 21.

“Common opinion has it that the plot of a narrative imposes a meaning on the events that comprise its story level by revealing at the end a structure that was immanent in the events all along” 23. But for White, all things remembered and set in a sequence seem similarly immanent. Historical discourse “makes the real desirable” through narrative. It can shuffle the events if they are “history.” “The embarrassment of plot to historical narrative is reflected in the all but universal disdain with which modern historians regard the ‘philosophy of history,’ of which Hegel provides the modern paradigm” 24. “The demand for closure in the historical story is a demand… for moral meaning” 24.

The value of narrativity is that of moralizing judgment. But the division of historical discourse into chronicles, annals, and history is already a division of narrativities. We want “real events [to] display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary” 27. He ends, “Could we ever narrativize without moralizing?” 27