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Beyond Representations and Subjectivity: Gender Binaries and the Politics of
Organizational Transformation
David Knights and Deborah Kerfoot
Department of Management
Keele University
The editors of this Special Issue raise the question as to whether binary thinking is a
fundamental obstacle to gender equity. For in binary thinking, our subject matter is
divided dichotomously between two polarities - men/women, or masculinity/femininity.
Following Derrida (1988) and Irigaray (1980), they suggest that binaries always involve a
hierarchy and, in the case under discussion, men and masculine discourses occupy the
dominant centre of rationality, displacing women and femininity to the emotional margins
of 'reality'. In short, what Derrida describes as masculine logocentric or legislative reason
reduces the 'feminine' to an absent or wholly subordinate 'other'. Their argument is that
despite a recognition that there are a multiplicity of masculinities and femininities
(Brittan, 1989), these continue to 'exist in a binary relation to each other' (Linstead and
Brewis, 2002) rendering the feminine subordinate. Their concern is to import the
arguments of social science and philosophy into the study of gender at work in order to
'dissolve these gender binaries to further explore the fluidity of gender identity' (ibid).
Whilst we are sympathetic to these concerns to acknowledge and theorise the fluidity of
gender identity, we wonder whether this objective of dissolution is possible within an
epistemological frame of representation. What is likely is a mere deconstruction of the
gender binaries. Our argument is that critique needs to go beyond representation in order
to challenge the subjectivity that makes it possible. This requires us to occupy a space that
stands between representations and their conditions of possibility. In our view,
deconstructing the gender binary is simply to challenge the reification of the terms
wherein male and female, masculine and feminine, or men and women are treated as
absolute and unchanging. Dissolving the binary, by contrast, would presumably invite a
collapsing of the terms so that they no longer sustain and reproduce the polarities between
men and women, and between masculinity and femininity.
Our paper is divided into three parts as follows. First, we explore what is implied by the
attribution of gender identities. Here we focus on the most dominant gender discourse
within work organizations - that of masculinity. We seek to challenge this dominance
because we think it is repressive in its consequences for others including the productive
capacity of organizations. By productive capacity we do not merely mean more output at
a lower cost but also less damaging social relations of production. In a second section, we
examine the discourse within feminism that has surrounded the work of Foucault. This
revolves around whether, given his neglect of issues of gender, Foucault is to be seen as
an inspiration or a distraction for feminist politics. This debate is extensive and intense
but we are less concerned with taking sides than with exploring how the various insights
might be mobilised to examine discourses of masculinity for purposes of their disruption.
In the third section, we argue that this disruption is unlikely to be advanced if we remain
caught within the representations of gender reflected in many feminist debates with
Foucault. Instead, our concern is to occupy a space that resides between those
representations and the subjectivity that makes them possible. For only then can we
challenge the binary subjectivities that reflect and reproduce discourses of masculinity.
Our radical epistemology has the potential not only to disrupt masculinity but also might
be the way that gender binaries can be dissolved rather than merely deconstructed. While
this would undoubtedly improve the experience of work for men and women, perhaps
removing some of the most repressive effects of masculine dominated workplaces, it
might also stimulate a more creative and productive mode of organising.
In a summary and conclusion we draw out some parallels between our analysis and
Hekman’s (2001) strategy of developing a feminist alternative to the singular and unitary
conception of truth, method, and morality. While supporting her destabilising of the
hegemonic masculinity that reflects and reproduces mainstream conceptions of truth,
method and morality, we suggest that our epistemological location between
representations and the subjectivity that makes them possible provides a necessary
Section 1 - Men and Masculinity
In recent years there has been a proliferation of interest in men and masculinity (e.g.
Tolson, 1977; Cockburn, 1983; 1985; Brittan, 1989; Seidler, 1989; 199; Cohen, 1990;
Hearn and Morgan, 1990; Rutherford, 1992; Cornwall and Lindisfarne, 1994; Connell,
1995). This interest has not gone on entirely uncontested (MacInnes, 1998) within the
sociology of gender but could be said to have been fairly marginal with respect to the
study of work organization and management (cf. Collinson and Hearn, 1996). Despite
this, much of the earlier work in both organizational studies and in the feminist literature
has, often unproblematically, tended to position men at the centre of their critiques (ibid.)
of sexual inequality at work (Pollert, 1981; Cavendish, 1982; West, 1982; Cockburn,
1983; Wajcman, 1983; Westwood, 1984; Collinson et al., 1990). Similarly men and
masculinity are the un- or under-theorised element in critiques of a patriarchal society
(Walby, 1986; 1990) that perpetuate sexual discrimination and inequality.
Whilst mainstream writing on management and organisation has frequently served to
deny or denigrate the significance of gender as a concept in the pursuit of `better'
management practice, feminist insights have often focused on women and their
experience of, and location within, (patriarchal) organisational stuctures and their
differential status in the paid labour market. One result of this neglect of men, and in
particular, masculinity as a core problematic is that whilst men and masculinity are
central to any analysis, they "remain taken for granted, hidden and unexamined"
(Collinson and Hearn, 1994:3). As we shall see later, like any other aspect of subjectivity,
masculinity is a necessary presupposition for producing representations but it remains
tacit and unspoken. The growing literature on masculinity and organisation serves as a
corrective to this tendency, and reconfigures the debate in such as way as to render men
and masculinity visible as objects of critical interrogation.
At one and the same time, critical discussion of men and masculinity in managerial and
organisational locales has enabled the often-problematic aspects of masculinity to be
illuminated, not least at the level of subjects themselves. In parallel, a related literature on
men more generally (see for example Kaufman, 1987; Brod, 1987; Kimmell, 1987;
Brittan, 1989; Segal, 1990; Connell, 1995) has signaled current problems with respect to
men and masculinity. Although spanning a wide range of positions in the debate, this
literature has been concerned to discuss men's experiences of `holding on to’ or changing
their sense of masculine identity. Predominant conceptions of masculinity have variously
characterised the consequences of masculinity synonymous with power, aggression and
control. Often the `experience of masculinity' is delineated in terms of a sense of loss,
inner trauma, emotional turmoil when a continuous and unending striving for the control
of objects, people and events falls short of an ultimate conquest of the external world.
Accepting the term masculinity as problematic, in that there are clearly diverse
masculinities across racial and ethnic difference (Mercer, 1988) within and between
countries (Gilmore, 1990) and across time and location, subsequent work on men and
masculinity sought to escape the confines of dualistic gender essentialism. Moreover,
beyond the obvious plurality of masculinites, the differing experiences of masculinity
within the lifespan of individuals forced reconsideration of whether masculinity as an allembracing descriptor for the behaviours of men was of any significant value. The work of
Connell (1995, for example,) resonated with that begun by Brittan (1989) arguing that the
failure to recognise masculine identities as plural could be found in the hitherto
unacknowledged understanding that masculinity had been conceived as an internally
undifferentiated category. Connell's contention was that the failure to recognise the
complexities and differences amongst men had resulted in a skewed analysis of social
relations and in the politics of the sexes wherein, as a consequence of this theoretical
slippage, all men were pitted against all women. Whilst there are clearly multiple
masculinities, culturally and historically, what remained at issue in the discussion and
development of the literature on masculinity was the shared characteristics of these
behaviours. Following the attempts of Carrigan, Connell and Lee (1987) to theorise men's
(dominant) behaviour in terms of masculinity, the term `hegemonic masculinity' achieved
What we would want to describe, as discourses of hegemonic masculinity are what
characterise most business and indeed non-commercial organizations. While tacit and
non-explicit in their own terms, discourses of masculinity nonetheless prevail to structure
and sustain behaviour of certain sorts. It is ordinarily behaviour that is technically
rational, performance oriented, highly instrumental, devoid of intimacy yet preoccupied
with identity, and driven by rarely reflected upon corporate or bureaucratic goals that are
presumed inviolable. These masculine discourses thereby have the effect of constituting
both managers and employees as subjects that secure their sense of identity, meaning, and
reality through the rational, efficient and singularly uncritical pursuit of the goals and
objectives handed down from above. Conditioned by this privileged and pervasive form
of masculinity, the modern manager is ritually engaged in co-ordinating and controlling
others in pursuit of the instrumental goals of production, productivity, and profit.
Our concern to disrupt masculinity is premised on the belief that left unchecked, such
subjectivities and discourses are repressive in their consequences for self and others.
Repressive for self in rendering the subject driven for no particular reason other than that
of a compulsive, cognitive and goal-centred design on a heroic mastery of all it purveys.
Repressive for others in reducing them to no more than instrumental resources in the
pursuit of this purposive rational design on the world. We suggest that there are three
interrelated ways in which masculine discourses and subjectivities are repressive both for
self and others. These can be seen as related to the issues of instrumentality, intimacy,
and identity respectively.
Masculine discourses privilege instrumental rationalities that reflect and reinforce an
effective attainment of ends through an efficient application of means. These rationalities
are a condition and consequence of masculine preoccupations with success that sees no
limits to control, competition, and conquest (Kerfoot and Knights, 1996). Lyotard (1984)
described the preoccupation with instrumental reason or what he calls ‘performativity’ as
that which is directed toward 'efficiency' and a concern with outcomes irrespective of the
means to their achievement. In this sense, instrumentality is amoral having no concern
with the ethical means to or outcomes of its achievement. It thereby represses the moral
content of organizational life even though this can be self-defeating since, as Durkheim
(1956) made clear at the turn of the century, there is an essential non-contractual or moral
framework in all contracts. The labour contract is no different here and the instrumental
repression of the moral framework can serve to undermine the inter-dependence and cooperation of organizational life.
A second repressive consequence of dominant masculine discourses is the structuring of
relations in ways that feign intimacy while actually denying 'its' expression. In pursuit of
its goals, the rationale of instrumental behaviour sustains a tunnel vision that displaces
any sense of intimacy. It is a wholly disembodied way of relating to self and Other. Of
course, subjects caught up in a masculine instrumental rationality follow the norms and
niceties of polite interpersonal relations since this is seen to oil the wheels of
communication as a necessary condition of securing outcomes that extend beyond the
individual. Masculinity constitutes a mode of relating devoid of intimacy other than in
ways that facilitate an expression of self, bound up in purposive rational instrumentality
and a heroic mastery of 'reality'. In the workplace and especially within management,
intimacy is denied legitimacy; it is understood to reside only in those 'private' places
beyond the world of work. This is absurd and repressive both for self and other since
intimacy cannot be segregated to its own private ghetto, as it is a part of what it is to be
human. But this attempt to ghettoise intimacy could be seen to be a function of its
mystery and hence its location in a space always beyond representation and mastery,
where it perpetually escapes our grasp. Within masculine discourses, if something cannot
be a target for mastery then it must be possessed and if it cannot be possessed then it must
be banished to the margins where it is contained if not controlled1. As we argue later, this
boundary where only that which can be represented counts as knowledge can be
challenged. Intimacy otherwise constitutes a threat to the precarious sense of a masculine
self, intent on instrumental control, competition, and conquest.
Masculine discourses would seem not only to invoke a preoccupation with control,
conquest, and competitive success but also, and as a necessary accompaniment to these
instrumental pursuits, self-mastery. This involves a compulsive preoccupation with
identity for how else can self-mastery be recognised except through the mirror of
narcissus confirming to us the sense that we have of ourselves? But narcissus is not
simply the image in the water or its modern equivalent - the mirror2; it is mediated
through our relations with others. Confirmation of self and identity is social and yet
masculine instrumentality has already chased out the intimacy through which such
confirmations from other might be plausible let alone sustained. The preoccupation with
identity must then become as instrumental, compulsive, and self-defeating as the demands
for control, conquest, and competitive success that it reflects and reproduces. By virtue of
the difficulty if not ultimate impossibility of controlling how the ‘other’ perceives the
self, identity always remain beyond reach.
Section 2 – Foucault and Feminism
This section begins by providing a somewhat truncated summary of the debate between
feminist supporters and detractors of Foucault. This is done not because we wish to take
sides for we remain ambivalent about the virtues and vices of theorising gender. We also
want to avoid treating one or other of the opposing representations as a vehicle for the
solidification and security of self or the shoring up of our own identities. Instead of
placing a closure around one particular set of arguments, we hope to draw on the insights
from both to set the scene for our analysis of an alternative epistemological space that is
beyond representation in Section 3. From these critics and supporters, we pay particular
attention to those that are either ambivalent or contribute to a discourse on masculinity. In
particular, we want to claim that ambivalence has a radical intent since it facilitates a
questioning that reaches behind rather than becomes locked into particular
representations. Despite not taking sides on the specific issue of the critique or
acceptance of Foucault's refusal to theorise gender, our analysis is informed by a
Foucauldian injunction to think the unthought or, in our terms, to go beyond
representation and subjectivity. At the same time, we draw on the critics in insisting that
an analysis of gender is crucial to understanding contemporary organization(s) but, while
retaining an ambivalence or scepticism with regard to all representations including
gender, our focus is on disrupting the domination of masculine presuppositions and
discourses. Our concern to disrupt the discursive dominance of masculinity is because we
believe it to have repressive consequences both for its perpetrators (usually but not
exclusively successful men) and its victims (often but not exclusively women). In
seeking to bring about this disruption, we find Foucault’s (1973) early yet comparatively
undeveloped discourse on epistemology is of particular value. Before turning to this
alternative epistemological framework for studying gender, we discuss the debate
between pro- and anti-Foucauldian feminists.
i) Critics
One of the main objections of feminists to Foucault is his refusal to theorise gender
identity. They believe that it undermines the political project of feminism to emancipate
women from male domination. His anti-humanism precludes the possibility of 'woman' as
the very project for feminist emancipation (Benhabib, 1992). It denies space for an active
subject as the agent and recipient of feminist demands for emancipation (see also
Hartsock, 1990) and undermine the reason for, and the content of, a feminist politics. Moi
(1985) argues that Foucault ignores any sense of women's oppression and hence a politics
of their liberation. Bartky (1988) also sees Foucault's neglect of the gender differentiated
affects on the 'docility' of bodies resulting in his ignorance of how women are turned into
'compliant' or submissive accessories for men. Others have suggested that the failure of
Foucault to focus on gender as opposed to sexuality have left him less reflective about
dominant masculine discourses than might otherwise have been the case. Indeed,
Braidotti (1991: 95) argues that by ignoring the sex specific struggles of women, Foucault
reinforces a 'masculine model of social relations'.
Hartsock (1996) follows a well-trodden path of assuming that because Foucault perceives
power to be everywhere, there is no point in resistance since it only serves to displace one
power with another. She also objects to the absence of any normative foundation within
Foucault since this removes the ground of a feminist politics to resist oppression. This is
also the basis of Frazer's (1996) highly sophisticated critique of Foucault where she
argues that we perhaps cannot dispense with humanism as a normative base if we are to
have any way of resisting the discipline over our bodies and souls that Foucault (1977)
describes. Also without some normative base, how can the totalizing panoptic of a society
disciplined by its own commitment to autonomy be opposed? Only if the ideal of
autonomy can be reinterpreted to have historically been the support for women's
subordination, Fraser (ibid. 36) argues, should feminists seek to follow Foucault in
rejecting humanism. This not entirely unsympathetic critique of Foucault is endorsed by
McNay (1994) who is more ambivalent than these other writers about the relevance of
Foucault's discourse to the feminist project. She argues that treating the subject in terms
of a passive or 'docile' body (ibid. 47) is the most problematic aspect of his work for
feminism. This reaffirms Bartky’s (1988) view that female passivity has been exploited
by men who treat women as little more than accessories to their masculine projects.
While sympathetic to his later work on ethics and aesthetics where Foucault seems to
overcome much of the passivity limit, she nonetheless argues that Foucault's failure to
develop a phenomenological theory of subjectivity (Knights, 1990: 321) leaves the 'social
mediation of the self undeveloped and unexplained' (ibid. 175).
The majority of these critiques appear to rest on a rejection of Foucault’s anti-humanist
denial of a normative and/or agential base from which feminists might struggle for
women’s emancipation. As we shall see when reviewing the supporters of Foucault, they
see the cost of following this kind of politics is to reproduce the gender binary that is the
very ground of a masculine, heterosexual hegemony. For the supporters of Foucault, it is
these gender binaries as a product of male dominated (hetero) sexual discourses that need
to be resisted. The two more ambivalent critiques, we feel, can be developed in ways that
might help disrupt rather than reproduce the gender binaries that we wish to deconstruct.
We turn first briefly to examine the feminist supporters of Foucault.
ii) Supporters
Feminist supporters of Foucault have responded in a variety of ways to his work. Few are
entirely uncritical but are prepared to accept what they see as certain flaws given the
overall value of his perspective. A case in point is Jana Sawacki (1991) who forgives
Foucault his androcentricism on the basis that his analysis reflects the values of feminism
in disrupting 'realities' that are normally taken for granted. She believes that Foucault
provides a devastating critique of sexual liberation in the 1960s. . This so-called sexual
liberation simply rendered us more then ever determined by its discursively constructed
biological and humanistic conception of sex. Despite his neglect of gender, Foucault's
theorising of sexuality as a key arena of political struggle is clearly relevant to a feminist
politics (Sawicki, 1991:49). In focusing on sexuality as a discourse that constitutes all
human subjects as targets of its enveloping power, Foucault also avoids the binary
oppositions that surround an analysis of gender. These binary oppositions have
traditionally been inescapably hierarchical - elevating, for example, men over women,
masculinity over femininity, heterosexual over homosexual, mind over body, rationality
over emotion, and so on (Irigaray, 1980; Derrida, 1988). Consequently disrupting them
may be seen as a necessary part of any feminist political struggle.
De Lauretis, (1987) finds Foucault’s analysis interesting because it can be used to
challenge the category gender and the dualistic modes of thinking that sustain its
associated binaries. Foucault’s neglect of the category gender could be seen largely as a
resistance to a heterosexual hegemony. To pose the question of gender in terms of sexual
difference (i.e. women from men or male from female) is to remain "within the frame of a
conceptual opposition that is always 'already inscribed'" within "dominant cultural
discourses and their underlying 'master narratives'" (de Lauretis, 1987:1). It is therefore to
reproduce that self-same binary and make it impossible to examine differences either
among women or among men.
While Foucault makes no attempt to interrogate masculine subjectivity, De Lauretis
(1987) has argued that sexuality in Foucault is gendered in that it is seen already
predominantly as a male attribute. This argument is elaborated by McCallum (1996:83)
who points out that 'gender is very much contained by, and constructed through, the
deployment of sex/uality and thus is inscribed in Foucault's analysis. Whether or not it is
embodied in the male or the female, sexuality is on the masculine side of a binary gender
matrix (McCallum, 1996). Foucault's refusal to genderise power-knowledge relations is
because this is precisely the binary that the discourse of sexuality has constructed. The
demise of hegemonic (hetero)sexuality demands that the binary be denied. Following
Lloyd (1984), McWhorter (1999:140) believes that Foucault’s rejection of the Cartesian
dualism between mind and body is to be endorsed because it perpetuates sexist beliefs
and behaviour. By privileging intellectual and cognitive representations, masculine
discourses reproduce a disembodied thinking that 'blinds us to the power of
normalisation, which does not operate on a body that is' a static property of the self and
thereby, prevents us from engaging in 'deliberate self-transformative practices' (ibid. 210).
This is because when disembodied in our orientations to life, we fail to notice what is
being done both to our bodies and to our souls since all that we recognise is that which is
accessible to the cognition or intellect. Self-transformation is unlikely in the absence of
an integration of mind and body.
Judith Butler (1990) was strongly influenced by Foucault in her opposition to essentialist
pre-social notions of identity and any politics in which a singular unitary identity was
invoked as the basis for female emancipation. However, through invoking a notion of a
libidinal 'multiplicity of pleasures' that seemingly presupposes the sexuality that power
imposes upon it (ibid. 95-101), Foucault does not help her to advance this emancipatory
critique. For Butler, this simply contradicts his other arguments that nothing about
human life is pre-discursive. Foucault’s concern to refuse the sexuality that has been
imposed upon us leads him into an essentialist cul de sac of treating pleasures as prediscursive. Susan Hekman (1992) supported Foucault largely because she saw his work as
undermining the dominance of the Enlightenment discourse on rationality where women
are constituted as the irrational 'other'. Although this is to neglect his ambivalence toward
the Enlightenment (Foucault, 1984), Hekman values his tendency to valorise the
subjugated knowledge of feminists as socially and self-transformative. Barbara Townley
(1994:166) focuses much more closely on the ethical possibilities in Foucault arguing that
the 'strength of Foucauldian politics' is its commitment to questioning how we are to
'conduct ourselves in our relations with others'. This is to take us more closely to the later
Foucault, where the concern was with how we can transform ourselves into ethical and
aesthetic subjects. We believe that an important condition of this transformation is to
remain in an epistemological and methodological space beyond representation.
Section 3 - An alternative space for dissolving gender binaries
This debate between critics and supporters of Foucault is illuminating in a number of
ways but we are less concerned to take sides than to recognise how our analysis can draw
insights from both without necessarily agreeing with either in their entirety. In
recognising that gender binaries invariably result in a privileging of men over women, we
follow those feminists who endorse Foucault's view that discourses of heterosexuality
keep in place the differences3 that sustain the dominance of masculinity. However, the
critic’s concerns are also important because we do not think it possible to dispense with
theorising masculine, and thereby gender discourses, if we are to seek to disrupt them.
However, we do not wish merely to add to or reinforce the representations that are made
while remaining oblivious of the conditions that make them possible. The question is to
what extent we can find a space where we might take on the insights from both sides of
this debate on gender without reverting to a solidification of self through becoming
attached to one set of representations against the other? This will need to be a space
beyond representation. In other words, we seek to occupy a critical space beyond
representation where our accounts are not primarily an occasion for producing an orderly
and predictable world in which to secure our sense of self. This is a resistant discourse
that seeks to avoid reflecting and reproducing our relationship to the Other (Levinas,
1986) as an instrumental resource for the solidification of self (Clough, 1992).
The space we suggest may be found epistemologically residing in between strong or
positive representations of reality and the conditions that make them possible. In relation
to feminist and gender discourses, this is illustrated in Diag. 1 below. A dominant though
by no means exclusive representation in feminist discourse is gender and its
objectification of the behaviour and identities of men and women. Through a
transformation of this objectification, a feminist critical knowledge seeks to exercise
and/or influence power to determine the 'truth' in norms of gender/sexual equality.
Because of other powerful representations within liberal democracy, the equality norm is
often reduced to a pale image of its own possibility in demands for equal opportunity4.
The only concept in the diagram that we have purposely neglected until the last is that of
subjectivity. This is because subjectivity is also what knowledge producers tend to
neglect or rather take for granted. None of the representations and their objectification of
particular events or activities are possible in the absence of implicit or explicit
conceptions and/or presumptions of subjectivity. In other words, subjectivity is a
necessary condition for any representation to be made possible. The conception of
subjectivity that reflects and reproduces gender representations is the binary that divides
men from women as discrete subjects or masculinity from femininity as distinct
discursively produced behaviours. While crucial, assumptions about subjectivity are
often taken for granted rather than examined as a condition that make representations
(knowledge) of
the behaviour and
identities of men
and women
Conditions that
make possible
and their truth
effects’ in
norms of
Equality or
Diag. 1. A space beyond representation
This space may be seen as providing the conditions of possibility for a certain kind of
critical work - one that seeks to get behind the representations and to challenge the
subjectivity that makes them possible. A binary conception of subjectivity is what makes
possible representations of gender but then the representations reproduce precisely that
binary almost as a self-fulfilling prophecy5. Subscribing to the representations of gender
leaves the gender binary divide in tact, making a disruption of masculinity difficult.
Remaining in the space between those representations and the subjectivity of binary
oppositions that make them possible, on the other hand, leaves us free to refuse or disrupt
the subjectivity of masculinity that is one of their significant discursive outcomes.
It could be argued that while advocating that gender researchers remain within the space
lying between representations and the subjectivity that makes them possible, we have
already produced a representation of representational knowledge. So the condition that
makes it possible to occupy the space between representations and the subjectivity that
makes them possible is another representation, ad infinitum. This, of course, is a reductio
absurdum where we can never escape the status quo. However, our representation of
representational knowledge retains some element of ambivalence since it refuses to put
closure on the subjectivity that is the condition that makes it possible. Instead, it
encourages representational theorists to reflect on the subjectivity they ordinarily take for
granted. This way perhaps they will begin to feel more ethically comfortable also in the
space that lies between representations and their conditions of possibility. But this might
then lead to the demise of representational knowledge altogether and then there would be
no space between representations and subjectivity to occupy except those of a historical
past. In this sense, an ethical space for gender studies is either parasitically dependent on
the continued reproduction of a/non-ethical research or anticipates its own demise. The
latter seems somewhat utopian, but it need not be dismissed as absurd since it simply
means that by such time, academic research could have exported an ‘openness’ to the
population. This might find its expression in ethical responsibility to others rather than a
continued and compulsive reproduction of security for the self.
Discussion and Conclusion
While there is not space here to articulate fully our alternative epistemology and its
methodological and ethical implications, it can be seen to have some parallels with that
proposed by Susan Hekman (1999). Her concern is also to find an epistemological space
for feminist analysis that is neither utopian nor essentialist. Demands for equality between
the sexes have remained utopian ever since Simone de Beauvoir (1972) argued for sexual
equality despite subscribing to an epistemology where woman is always and necessarily
the opposite passive and subordinate complement to the active and autonomous male
subject (Hekman, 1999: 6). In this epistemological asymmetry, subjectivity is male and
woman must always be its Other. De Beauvoir argues that there are only two solutions to
this dilemma for women – either to abandon the status of Other and the negativity and
lack that it entails or to assert the same kind of autonomy for the Other and thus become a
subject like a man. De Beauvoir’s preference is for the first strategy and she sought
therefore to eliminate the gender differences both social and biological. Career women
throughout recent decades have tended to follow this strategy thus demonstrating that
masculinity is not the exclusive preserve of men. However, in the absence of also
abandoning the One/Other epistemological framework, Hekman argues this strategy is
impossible. This is because the hierarchy is a logically necessary element of the gender
binary. Consequently, in the history of feminism, a greater emphasis has been placed on
the alternative strategy of seeking to valorise women’s unique lived experience to elevate
woman to a level coincident with that of men. This ends up relying on essentialist
arguments that elevate women’s lived experience as the source of a superior form of
knowledge. The claim is that women should displace men in the hierarchy of One/Other
relationships because they rather than men have access to this superior knowledge.
While the first strategy sought to eradicate the differences between men and women, the
second strategy did the opposite in emphasising the differences and displacing men by
women in the hierarchy. Hekman (1999:92) challenges both these strategies on the basis
that they remain locked into an enlightenment epistemology that sustains a belief that
there is one single standard of truth from which deviations are inferior. The first sees
women becoming an equal member whereas the second seeks a rebellion in which
women displace men as the guardians of the truth. Both, however, leave unchallenged the
unitary standard of truth that sustains an instrumental, disembodied and identity seeking
masculine self.
Hekman (ibid.) subscribes to a third strategy that denies a single unitary truth and
promotes an epistemology where multiple sources of truth prevail. Differences are not
seen as illegitimate deviations from the one true standard but simply a part of the rich
texture of human life and experience. This epistemology draws on a Wittgensteinian or
Nietzschean philosophical tradition where a Background of ‘domain assumptions’
(Gouldner, 1970) is perceived to render any statement intelligible or meaningful to
members of a society. This Background which may be identified as ‘language games’
(Wittgenstein), ‘prejudices’ (Nietzsche) or ‘epistemes’ (Foucault) is synonymous with a
hegemonic masculinity that must be challenged if an alternative feminist strategy is to be
advanced (ibid. 121). While Hekman has her own way of challenging the Background
that sustains masculine power, here we have suggested an alternative yet complementary
strategy. This has been to remain in the epistemological space that lies between
representations and the conditions that make them possible. These conditions can be seen
to reflect precisely the Background to which Hekman refers.
Hekman’s third strategy involves seeking to destabilise the hegemonic masculine
Background assumptions of everyday discourse not by claiming a superior feminine truth
but simply by showing how there are multiple paths to truth. So, for example, she draws
on the work of Haraway (1989) who has studied primatology to demonstrate that stories
of culture, nature, gender and race change in relation to cultural changes in society. Her
argument is that the hegemonic masculine story of reality can be destabilised by telling a
feminist story and this ought to transform cultural thinking about women (ibid. 144).
What, however, is limited in Hekman’s analysis is the presumption that the Background
assumptions sustaining a hegemonic masculinity are only repressive for women and not
also for (at least some) men. This is where the literature on masculinity can make a
contribution in destabilising not only the Background assumptions of hegemonic
masculinity but also some of those relating to feminism. Although men may often be
privileged in material and symbolic status vis-à-vis women, they are also imprisoned by
the demands of masculine discourses to be independent, tough and manly,
‘breadwinners’, protective and responsible.
We are completely sympathetic to Hekman’s strategy of destabilising the conception of
unitary truth handed down from the Enlightenment by showing how there are multiple
paths to the truth. We also support a challenging of the boundaries of the language games
or epistemes that sustain a masculine hegemony where there is only one (epistemo)logical
route to truth and where, to the exclusion of other moral values (e.g. care, love,
responsibility), justice rule supreme. This can reveal the Background as not the ground of
all truth but merely the ungrounded ground of the truth prevailing in our society and at
this time (ibid. 138) but it is a truth that elevates instrumental control. As she argues,
feminists rendering unfamiliar what is taken for granted (e.g. gender conventions, sexual
behaviour, justice) can shift incrementally the boundaries of the Background assumptions
that reflect and reinforce a hegemonic masculinity.
Our concern is that while acknowledging multiple paths to the truth and morality,
Hekman does not discuss how her methodology will avoid the representational form that,
following Foucault, she admits (re)produces the world that it studies (ibid. 134). Our
proposal is that we remain in the space between representations and the conditions that
make them possible. This facilitates a different way of destabilising the boundaries of the
Background assumptions that sustain a hegemonic masculinity. It first of all indicates
how the advance of singular and unitary truths through representational knowledge is not
only grounded in the Background of what everyone knows but also in particular
constructions of subjectivity. These constructions of subjectivity (e.g. rational economic
man in economics) are the very conditions that make it possible to produce
representational knowledge but they are, in effect, self-fulfilling. This is because once
knowledge is drawn upon in the exercise of power, it has the effect of creating the
conditions whereby we constitute ourselves in terms of the subjectivity that it presumes
and seeks to sustain. Given the legitimacy that economic knowledge and government
practice provides for the market system, what sense would there be for individuals not to
constitute themselves as economically rational or rational choice subjects? 6 In short, the
subjectivity representational knowledge presumes is reproduced and therefore selffulfilling through the exercise of power. Of course, not all scientists are effective in
mobilising resources and enrolling key actants in the sociology of translation (Callon,
1986) or securing sufficiently robust networks to transform their representations into
knowledge. Also there is no exact correlation between knowledge and its interpretation
by those exercising power. Furthermore, subjects do not necessarily passively subjugate
themselves to the demands that are made of them so that often there can be leakage in
terms of the subjectivity that would ordinarily be self-fulfilling in power/knowledge
relations. But the one way that is more likely to result in a refusal of the subjectivity that
power/knowledge would have us become is to remain in the space between
representations and the subjectivity that makes them possible. This is a subversive place
that would challenge the boundaries of possible knowledge and, in particular, threaten the
masculine subjectivity that, through the Background, language games or the episteme, is
presupposed by representation. It might do so in a way not dissimilar to Hekman’s
alternative understanding of difference, method, and truth but may be less likely to result
in a one-sided feminist understanding of the repressive effects of representation as falling
exclusively on women.
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A parallel argument can be made whereby ethics, just like intimacy, is treated as a
marginal and mysterious phenomenon perhaps because it also can only be contained, not
controlled. ‘Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural’ … ‘What it says does not add to our
knowledge in any sense’ (Wittgenstein, 1965 quoted in Cahoone, 2003).
We can draw here on Roberts (2001) use of Lacan (1949) where he argues that the
mirror stage of the development of self (i.e. when we first recognise ourself in the mirror)
brings about a misrecognition (mėconnaissance) or perhaps conflation of self with its
specular image and that this is what leads to a preoccupation with having that image
confirmd by ‘other’. A defence and elaboration of this self (Roberts 2001:118) becomes
then a strategy for success in which the ‘other’ is invariably a means to an end. These
strategies rely on an elevation or privileging of sight (visibility) over corporeal sensibility
(Levinas, 1991 quoted in Roberts, 2001:112) and in this sense could be depicted as a
condition and consequence of a masculine discourse that elevates what can be seen over
other bodily senses.
Or should we say ‘differance’ (Derrida) in the sense that the difference between the
genders is also one in which there is both deference of women to men and a continuous
deferral of confronting the relationship for fear of undermining the power on which it
While not to be shunned, equal opportunity achievements provide 'meritocratic' means
of legitimizing rather than undermining social (including gender) inequality.
An analogy can be drawn with economics discourse where the conditions of subjectivity
that lie behind representations of labour or consumption are the utility maximising or
economically rational actor. Suppliers (e.g. employers and retailers) then apply the
representations of economists such that to behave in ways other than economic rationality
would be self-defeating. Consequently economic rational choice behaviour is selffulfilling.
Public policy in the form of competition policy in the UK continually seeks to transform
individuals into economically rational subjects on the basis that they contribute to the
efficiency of companies by forcing them to be more competitive in their search for the
(rational) consumers’ consumption.