home | philosophy index | essay | comment


1. This is a general thesis in Chernin’s article The Hungry Self, and is somewhat difficult to capture in any single citation. Nevertheless, it is helpful to notice that she is interested in highlighting the overlap between the condition of “house-wives” of the 1950’s and the contemporary daughters of feminism as one of a crumbling identity in the face of opportunity (either real or popularly postulated): “As Betty Friedan defined the problem, in a work that articulated for millions of American women the nature of their dilemma, this nameless suffering was a problem of identity, of not knowing who or what one is or might wish to become. It produced feelings of emptiness and incompletion, a desire to run out of the house, to walk aimlessly through the streets, to weep uncontrollably and for no apparent reason. There was a feeling of desperation in these lives of affluent women living the American dream, and a sense, too, of isolation and loneliness in this suffering they hid from themselves and from others.” (Kim Chernin, The Hungry Self: Women, Eating, and Identity, [New York/Harper & Row, 1985] p.16)

2. We might suppose that the rise in “black-on-black” violence which now plagues most American black communities is an analogous identity crisis, brought to the fore by the civil rights movement. It may seem curious that such a comparison should be deemed appropriate. However, if we are going to assert that the relative success of feminism, with respect to the moral and political emancipation of women, is at least partially responsible for an identity crisis among women — simply by the dismantling of ancient gender-constraints — then we should be able to find parallel anxieties (experienced with comparable self-destructiveness) in any population similarly “liberated”.

3. The Hungry Self, p.25.

4. Chernin locates, at least in large part, the identity crisis facing women in a struggle by the daughter to form an identity distinct from the mother. This may be a puzzling association, especially in light of the widespread system of oppression such a daughter already faces, along with the contradictory signals she societally receives for self-sufficient individualistic self-definition and the rebuke she faces for being too “butch” about it. Still, it nicely highlights a sense in which the struggle women face as daughters, is a struggle to “become their [mother’s] sons”. Women are being asked, in a rather surprising twist, to be autonomous by being more ‘male’, without so much of a change in what it means to be a man. Chernin says, “... the problem of female identity that most troubles us, and that is most distinguished by our preoccupation with eating and body-size and clothes, has a great deal to do with being a daughter and knowing that one’s life as a woman must inevitably reflect on the life of one’s mother. This is the anxiety that makes us yearn to wear male clothes, regardless of fit, and to work over and worry at and reshape these female bodies of ours so that they can help us pretend we have managed to escape from being our mothers’ daughters and have, in our appearance at least, become their sons. Our mothers’ sons — those being for whom self-development and the struggle for identity are an entirely legitimate enterprise. (The Hungry Self, p.37)

5. The gender-alignment of willful rationality as deeply opposed to the ‘feminine’ spirit is nicely expressed by Susan Bordo, in her paper Reading the Slender Body (included in her later book Food, Fashion and Power [Berkeley/California Press]), where she observes: “In the anorectic’s lexicon, and throughout dominant Western religious and philosophical traditions, the “virile” capacity for self-management is decisively coded as male. By contrast, all those “bodily” spontaneities — hunger, sexuality, the emotions — seen as needful of containment and control have been culturally constructed and coded as female.” (pp.101-102)

6. I am, of course, speaking principally of heterosexual modes of sexual desire. Or, at least, sexual power which ultimately refers to men.

7. Bordo, Reading the Slender Body, p.101.

8. The Muse is often, even dominantly, imagined as female, but is creativity in general so conceived? Is creativity gendered? Supposing it is, an effeminate conception of artistic inspiration challenges the assumption that ‘female’ affectations cry out for local containment and control. Admittedly, the general affinity in customary speech between madness and creative genius suggests a deep antipathy between the artist and the well-ordering of society. Nevertheless, even where ‘schooling’ or ‘indoctrination’, clearly mechanisms for societal containment or direction of the creative impulse, are considered necessary for the full realization of artistic genius, it seems that the feminine muse is ultimately unleashed at a more profound level by the effort, tearing more deeply into conventional propriety than would have been possible without such ‘learning’. Schooling, in the artistic sense, far from ‘normalizing’ the artistic impulse, seems to direct and sharpen its inherent radicalism.

9. I cannot deny a general tendency, here and elsewhere, for the notions of will and the rational faculty to contain little matter which might significantly distinguish them from each other. It would be too great a task to explore adequately here, and so I leave it for the reader to simply understand, that I am presently taking a somewhat Aristotelian view of the soul, at least regarding the ascription to rational appetite the guiding principle in action. Whether we wish to rescue the notion of will for some other purpose will not impact upon the present reading of will as the principle of action, whereby that action may be subject to moral scrutiny.

10. Moral agency is essentially rational in the sense that the activation of such agency is forever susceptible to justificatory analysis.

11. “The axis of consumption/production is gender-overlaid, as I have argued, by the hierarchical dualism which constructs a dangerous, appetitive, bodily “female principle” in opposition to a masterful “male” will. We would thus expect that when the regulation of desire becomes especially problematic (as it had in advanced consumer cultures), women and their bodies will pay the greatest symbolic and material toll.” (Bordo, p.105)

12. This point relies upon a distinction between commitments and expectations which may seem a bit curious given my initial comments regarding the construction of selves (or self-definition) via socio-linguistic affiliations. Surely, it will be argued, the production of commitments from local expectations is quite natural within affiliated contexts where persons are at least self-located. Part of locating oneself within a community, after all, is electing to find compelling (and in some sense reasonable) the expectations that community has of its members. The victims of anorexia-nervosa and bulimia are, generally speaking, self located within our greater socio-economic world-culture (as evidenced by the internalization of its demands). So, it would seem, nothing more is required to explain the presence of such an internalized conflict. However, expectations which demand the seeking of mutually exclusive goals (or goals which cannot be simultaneously attained or enjoyed), demand tighter contexts of self-identification than global affiliations, in order that the conversion to commitment be complete. The prima facia absurdity of such demands must be reconciled by a set of strictly intimate commitments, affiliations, or linguistic assumptions, in order that the inherent dissonance fail to offend intelligibility and therewith fall away unseen and unfelt.

13. Bordo, p.89. Notice also, Bordo’s point that this “hunger” is one particularly resistant to rational regimentation or tailoring, when she says, “The contradiction is not an abstract one but stems from the specific historical construction of a “consuming passion” from which all inclinations toward balance, moderation, rationality, and foresight have been excluded.” (ibid., p.97)

14. Susan Griffin, Rape: The All-American Crime (from Women and Values, edited by Marilyn Pearsall [Wadsworth, 1986]), p.178.

15. Griffin, p.178.

16. Much can be made of the historical simultaneity of the birth of property and of writing (and of these two with the emergent reality of rape). Indeed, the primitive partitioning of the soul into two parts follows nicely the line between writing and reading. It is a partitioning which is extremely unnatural where dialogue (free, open, and reciprocal speech) remains the dominant form of interpersonal communication. When the written word moves to central stage, enabling and formalizing impersonal political structures, a basic separation between the power of authorship and of obedience obtains a particular lucidity in the popular imagination. Suddenly we can see, within ourselves, a writing part (the reason, the author/authority, the will as literate and privately deliberative) and a reading part (sensing, listening, a will of sorts by the volatility of passions aroused in the presence of language). Too much, of course, can be made of the connection between hierarchical dominance structures and the introduction of a written language. And we may gain some insight into alternative notions regarding the early development of literate cultures by a look to sub-communities which are themselves relative newcomers to the medium. In particular, the advanced written language(s) for musical notation, being little older than five hundred years, suggests that the presence of a written lexicon does not necessarily entail a model of linear authority. The voice of the composer, the intention, the communication, still occurs not by the immediate transmission of the text from the hand of the composer to the eye of the “listener”, but only by the “intervention” or “realization” of the performer. The performance, the recitation, intercedes in the line of pure authority, “corrupting” it perhaps, but reminding us that there is no one “absolute” word in the text. There is no “absolute” proprietary determination of correctness hiding in the marks upon the page. The voice of the composer is in every note played, in each melody, every cadence and rhythm, speaking by the sum of all performances.

Feminist Philosophy
Spring 1993
(© David Foss, December 1993)

Send comments to hok007@shlobin-foss.net
Last modified August 26, 1998

home | philosophy index | essay | comment