Feminism and psychoanalytic theory

Feminism and psychoanalytic theory

Book Reviews political and transformative force. Pharr’s concise synthesis of this insidious and many-faceted problem is an essential and invaluable ...

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Book Reviews

political and transformative force. Pharr’s concise synthesis of this insidious and many-faceted problem is an essential and invaluable guide for all feminists, both lesbians and heterosexuals alike. JANET E. ROBINSON pbn-, ME, USA REFERENCE Boswell,John. (1980). Chtitiunity so&l tolemnce, und homosetwa/ity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


OF WOMZN, edited by SuZanne

Skevington and Deborah Baker. Sage Publications. London. 1989. This book could have usefully been subtitled “evahmtions and modifications of lhifel’s theory.” All the contributors take Henri ‘fhifel’s social identity theory, formulated with race and class in mind, as a starting point, and hold it up to the light of their own fmdings on aspects of the social identity of women. Social identity theory is concerned with individuals as members of social groups, the power and status relations of different groups in society, and the conditions under which disadvantaged groups will attempt to create a more positive social identity for themselves and bring about social change. The theory, and the problems and strengths of applying it to sa, are outlined in the editors’ introduction. Additionally, relevant aspects are elucidated by the authors of the chapters. There are chapters looking at women in specific instances (e.g., nurses, lawyers, firsttime mothers), and others addressing the subject of womanhood at a more general level. Some draw out the contradictory and multifaceted nature of identity for women while others present a more straightforward view. Despite the editor’s clear introduction, and despite the book jacket’s claim to appeal to a range of students and lectures, the use of jargon and the assumption of a base of social psychological knowledge on the part of many of the authors makes this book a slightly difficult read for those without that base. Christine Griffin’s chapter about young women and work is an eminently accessible exception to this. Running through the book is a concern over which methodologies best allow the concept of social identity to be explored. There is general agreement that the small group laboratory-based experiments, using constructed scales, which character&d earlier studies in the area are unsatisfactory. However, some authors are more willing to consider drawing upon a variety of methods than others. While Patricia Gurin and Hazel Markus’ piece on women and feminist consciousness clings to a laboratory-based positivistic method and writing format, Griffin uses informal interviewin and a fluid writing style which allows for a more complex analysis of the same topic. Within the field there seems to be some courtship of feminist and qualitative methods. but many appear unsure they can cope with such a relationship. Griffin fully considers the effect of her own role in her research, whereby she was predefmed as a feminist by respondents simply because she was a woman doing research on young women. Yet Dominic Abrams does not consider


the possible impact of his sex on his interviews exploring male-female relations with children and young people. The contributors also have different understandhrgs of what it means to put the “social” into social psychology - as the editors note in their conchrsion. The atent to which historical and social context is examined varies. Abrams, for example, makes no mention of the race or class of his respondents and hence does not address the differential ways this might structure their identities. In their introduction the editors acknowledge that dominant groups in society impose the deftitions of social groupings that those groups have to work with, but few contributors follow this through. Instead, there is a stress on self-categorisation and on consensus. While this is important, a balance does need to be kept in mind. The editors, for instance, argue that although ‘lhifel’s theory stresses competition between groups, ap plication of the theory to women reveals interdependenties and affiliations, and Susan Condor states that questions of whether a Black, British-born woman is Black, British, or a woman, are misleading because they are not attuned to the way these identities intermesh. This is true, and yet two recent events led me to ponder the way dominant groups can require that splitting of identity. At the 1990 British Sociological Association annual conference, Women’s Caucus and Black Caucus meetings were scheduled to take place at the same time, leaving Black women sociologists with a difficult choice; and recently a British politician questioned the loyalty of immigrant groups to Britain, arguing they should put aside other group identities and (using a cricketing analogy) “cheer for the British batsman.” lb be fair, throughout the book it is recognised that more questions are raised than are answered, and the excitement and enthusiasm for further research that this can generate comes across in the editors’ concluding chapter. This chapter does its job well, pulling the various strands from the different contributions together and pointing out ways to go forward both with regard to social identity theory and the women’s movement. It is an optimistic ending to a book which says as much about the identity affiliations of the people working in the field of study as it does about the social identity of women generally. Ros&mn EDWARDS !~JTE BANKRXYTBCHNIC LONDON. ENCUND

Frr~mra~ AND PSYCHOANALXTIC TEEORY, by Chodorow. 286 pages. Polity Press, Oxford, URf25 hardcover.



On the front cover, the “Feminism” stands out rather than the “Psychoanalytic.’ I wanted to know from the first how this visual impression related to the contents, psychoanalysis and feminism beii both and separately foundations of knowledge passionately contested. Nancy Chodorow explains her rationale in the introduction: This volume traces my thoughts about the relations between feminism and psychoanalytic theory over the-past twenty years, since the beginning of the contemporary feminist movement. The essays argue for the necessity to include psychoanalytic understand-


Book Reviews

ing, broadly construed, in feminist theory and also feminist understanding, broadly construed. in psychoanalysis. (p. 13) It is a very useful book for readers who want to know about Nancy Chodorow’s work and to trace her path up to the time of writing. All but two of the’chapters (she calls them “essays”) were written for various publications between the years 1971 to 1986. Such a compilation allows the writer to act as a guide, making comment on the patterns she can now see (with the benefit of hindsight) in the development of her thinking. The introduction and the final two chapters give her the opportunity to review and contextuallse her work to date. She also makes interesting links with the development of ideas about theory in the feminist movement, the move towards decentralisation, and offers her own perspective on the association between feminism and psychoanalytic thought. It is useful to the contemporary reader that she does this because the passing of time can easily strand a writer, and there are questions now which date her work, just as she sees that the “Thirties Women” (in her final chapter) are dated by their location in time but also more, significantly, in material history. The book being organised as it is allows us to see how a writer applies the reflexive tradition creatively to her own work. The relevance which she sees history bringing to bear lies especially in the recognition that both feminist theory and psychoanalytic theory must, to be credible and morally acceptable, abandon tendencies to unlversalism which would ride roughshod over historical differences between people. This means quite a lot of re-thinking because the motivation for much of western feminist work does come from just this enthusiasm for what all women might have in common, and often unself-consciously focuses problems from the point of view of a relatively small group of women who have taken for granted that they could speak for all women. Nancy Chodorow comments that, “My drawing on psychoanalysis . . . wasitself in the context of, and remains a sort of carryover from feminist grand theory days.” She continues, “Now, however, when I speak of feminist theory I mean something more wholistic and pluralistic - encompassing a number of organisational axes-and at the same time not absolute” (p. 5). The reader may wonder whether there are not already other useful ways of theorizing self which do not imply “dismissing out of hand” the psychoanalytic tradition, but really do offer different ways of working with the issues. I am thinking of work historlcising biography and autobiography which do not necessarily lead to the formulation of general principles at all, Of the two newly written chapters, which appear at the end of the book, the first is devoted to situating her work in relation to Neo-Freudian feminism and Lacanian theory, but I enjoyed the following one the best: “Seventies Questions for Thirties Women.” This involves her in presenting some of the questions which have been so important for her (as a feminist analyst rooted in the 1970s movement) to women psychoanalists who trained in the 2Os, 30s and 40s. It contains lively words from the women, bringing those past times back to life, and I think it is much more consistent with her assertion of the need both in psychoanalysis and feminism to find ways of working which are historically specific rather than concentrating on the construction of grand theory.

It is refreshing to hear these strong-minded women’s opinions about their careers and relationships and the changing times. Methodologically it is in keeping with Chodorow’s self-reflection on her changing consciousness. This book presents a compilation of a selection of past work together with indications of directions for the future and as such will prove useful to those working in the same area as well as those who are interested in following the debate from a distance. TkREsAILES THOMASDANBY COLLEOE OFFURTHBREDUCATION LEEDSUNIVFMITYDEPT OFEXTERNALSru~ms ENOLAND


Minow-Pinkney, 212 pages. The Harvester Brighton, 1987. UKf9.95 softcover.


Now that Makiko Minow-Pinkney has integrated feminist psychoanalytical literary theory with Virginia Woolf’s major novels, we wonder how we were able to read them before. She applies Julia Kristeva’s concept of the semiotic so smoothly and cogently that one can hardly distinguish the seam joining the theory to the texts. Of course, literary theory applied as criticism is still difficult, involving new philosophical perspectives. But then, Woolf is equally difficult, although time and critical consensus have familiarised her novels. We can by now expect that linguistic and psychoanalytic theories have become part of the mental equipment of literary critics, at least in the Anglo- and Francophone worlds, validating Minow-Pink&s approach. Her undertaking, after all, is pertinent: Woolf’s concerns are related, if not identical, to the questions explored by contemporary literary theory. Rejecting the sociological realism of the Edwardian novel, she sought to express the deeper shifting truth of the spirit-and immediately found%erself scrutinising perception and reality. The position of the subject, the nature of representation, the fallibility of language are all leitmotifs in Woolf% novels, as well as the specific subject matter of literary theory. MinowPinkney highlights a typical example: in Mrs. Dalloway an aeroplane spells out-an advertising slogan in the sky, tantalising its readers with (perhaps) the letters K, E, Y. Like the theorists, Woolf is drawing attention, through irony, to the elusiveness of the transcendental signifier. The drive towards meaning is endlessly defeated by the frustrating play of signs. There is an even greater affinity with feminist psychoanalytic theory, given the common ground of Freud and feminism shared by the novelist and critics. Indeed, Kristeva’s concept of the symbolic and semiotic modes of language acts as a key to Woolf’s literary innovations. For Kristeva, the symbolic order bears the meanings and values of culture through language. This is preceded, however, by a loose, provisional semiotic order, articulated by the gestures and cries of a baby, by the rhythm of poetry, by jokes and word-games. The human subject alternates between these two modes in process. Woolf s experimentation with form and language, notably with syntax, expresses this semiotic, while her antirealistic expressionism is a rejection of the restrictions of the