Kelly Oliver is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. She received her BA in communications and philosophy from Gonzaga University and her MA and PhD in philosophy from Northwestern University. She is the author of many scholarly articles and books, and she teaches courses in Phenomenology, Existentialism, and Feminist Theory.
An Overview of Kelly Oliver's Work
COPYRIGHT 1998 JENNIFER L. HANSEN
Kelly Oliver's work cuts a swathe through the thicket of feminist debates. Oliver does not sidestep the difficult questions of female subjectivity. As a product of the uneasy alliance of feminism with deconstruction and Foucauldian genealogy, feminist philosophers tread very carefully on the subject of whether or not to philosophize what it means to be female. If feminists attempt to fill in the outlines of a barely detectable philosophical concept of "Woman" or the feminine, then they risk fixing such a concept with notions about women that ultimately derive from the metaphors men historically fashioned of women. Feminist philosophers often find themselves silenced, or at least speaking in apologetic or highly disclaimed terms, when they venture into a dialogue with philosophy. To speak positively about women, or more specifically the mother for Oliver, so the arguments goes is to speak in the very language that constructs them as objects of Western philosophy, as the Other. Yet Oliver speaks quite boldly, despite all the risks. She believes that the risk of speaking about subjectivity, and especially female subjectivity, may be the only violence we need confront in our intersubjective relations to each other. Working against a history of philosophical models that presuppose the engendering of beings as a violent confrontation, she reimagines the primal scene as one of cooperation. However, she notes: "While my model cannot prevent the possibility of annihilating the other, it does not begin with the necessary attempt at that violation. Rather, it begins with cooperation that can break down if, as Derrida points out, it does not risk violence by continuing to attempt an exchange across difference. We have to be willing to take the chance of misunderstandings or assimilations in order to cooperate" (my emphasis, Oliver 1995, 196).
One could argue that the crux of Oliver's work is to rethink the grounds of ethics. That is, Oliver challenges the basic concepts that most ethicists presuppose such as autonomous subjectivity, rational deliberation, principles or laws for just action, and the often implicit assumption that without ethics human beings would most likely destroy each other. Contrary to the history of social contract theory and Hegel's theory of intersubjective recognition, wherein both positions consider subjectivity to be a matter of two independent subjects battling each other to gain a position of dominance, Oliver imagines intersubjectivity in completely different terms. By imaging primary intersubjective relations as one of cooperation and mutual growth, she shifts ethical debates to different bases. Ethics no longer becomes a study of the rules needed to regulate human interactions riven with strife. She writes: "Ethics cannot be based on the rights or reason of an autonomous subject if all subjects are inherently social in the constitution of their very subjectivity. Discussions of individual rights presume a self-contained virile subject who controls his body and his actions. But if we give up our commitment to the virile subject in favor of a social subject, then in order to make ethical and judicial decsions we need to examine the relationships between people and the conditions that make these relationships possible; we cannot merely assume an equality, a surface equality that often masks deeper inequalites" (Oliver 1997, 231).
Oliver proposes that the war, violence, oppression and all other human injustices stem partly from the images that philosophers paint of human subjectivity. They begin with a belief that human beings are fundamentally at war with one another and then wonder why they have such a hard time establishing peace and harmony. Oliver wages that "peace can come only by embracing alternative images of who we are and where we come from" (233).
Throughout her several texts, Oliver proposes two fundamental images, which are interrelated, and with which we ought to mediate our self-understanding: (1) that our first relationship with the mother is already a social relationship and (2) our models of intersubjectivity need not begin with the belief that the encounter is hostile. The reason these images are interrelated lies in Oliver's argument, following the French philosopher Luce Irigaray, that the texts of Western philosophy commit the violent act of matricide. That is, philosophers create an artificial wedge between what they perceive to be the boundaries of nature and culture. By drawing such boundaries, philosophers demarcate a realm that one must leave, one's early, natural relationship with the mother, to ascend to his or her place in culture. From the inception of philosophical thought, argues Oliver, philosophers have attempted to separate themselves from animal-like nature, through reason and language, so that they may enter into a purely social realm--an intellectual realm of discourse and reason. The ability to enter the social realm is what separates human beings from their animal roots. However, in this philosophical imagery, this well-known myth of human beginnings, the mother must be sacrificed. In order to become human, to become rational, the mother must be abjected--terms that Oliver borrows from the French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva. Another grave effect of this matricide is that all women, whose identity philosophers wholly subsume under the institutions of motherhood, become threats to male ascession to culture. Thus, philosophers spread a fundamental misogyny in their texts so as to maintain their distance from a chaotic, irrational natural realm.
However, inspired by her early work on Julia Kristeva (Oliver 1993), Oliver persistently argues that philosophers are fundamentally flawed in their assumptions that our primary relationships with the mother are not yet social relationships. She makes a variety of arguments to support this claim. For example, she argues, following Kristeva, that language is not only an instrument with which we rationally capture, analyze and understand the things of nature--the things of the world. Nor, contra Jacques Lacan, is language our means for expressing demands, if demand means that we no longer are able to get our needs met automatically by the mother, but must now demand for them to be met. Both views of language ignore the affective dimensions that subtend communication and expression. Oliver wants to argue, alternatively, that when we speak we are trying to say something that matters to us; we use language to express things that are meaningful. Things matter to us on more levels than merely intellectual levels; feelings are not thoughts. Our interest in the world is also an extension of our embodied existence. And she argues that the beginnings of speech derive from basic bodily functions, "the tones and rhythms of language, the materiality of language, are bodily" (Oliver 1997, 109). The bodily element in language, the tone and rhythm, for example, allows the speaker to discharge affects or drive forces in the process of signification and share them with another. Communication is bodily. Kristeva calls this element of speech the semiotic. And the semiotic exists from our very first interaction with the mother. As infants we communicate our needs through the discharge of affect with the mother's body or between our body and the mother's body. Affect is exchanged partially through a dialogue with words, but also partially by tones of voice, body language, smiles, tears etc. "These exchanges are protodialogues that take place between bodies, bodies that are social even if they are not properly subjects" (114). The early bodily exchange between infant and mother is already a form of communication; language is not just an instrument for communicating information, but for communicating, in the sense of communion, with others as well. Central to analyzing the ways in which patriarchy constructs maternity of femininity is the necessity of analyzing the discourses surrounding paternity. Oliver argues that "the danger in not doing so is that man continues to operate as a norm, standard, or natural category within even our own discourses [feminist] that call into question the naturalization of categories that entomb women" (Oliver 1998, 100). In both Family Values and her new book, Subjectivity without Subjects, Oliver devotes half of the texts to analyzing the ways in which patriarchy legitimates paternal authority in the family and how this very legitimization is problematic. Paternity connotes virility and property. A exemplary man is one who is virile, strong and capable of defending his property: his wife, children and estate. Oliver shows how this very ideology functions in both the Promise Keeper's and the Nation of Islam (however she also underscores the important race factors that differentiate the two movements). What is common to these contemporary "men's" movements is the reassertion of the father as the "head of the household." Oliver demonstrates how much of the shaming involved in these movements "to motivate men to assume responsibility by reclaiming their place a the head of the family" involves calling men "sissy" or "wimp." Patriarchy demands a strong man, however it also demands a man who divorces himself from his passions; likewise, neo-platonic philosophy requires a soul purified from bodily temptations and disruptions. The father is an absent body. As philosophers argue throughout the ages, men must not cloud their heads with emotions or temptations, but must function solely through the exercise of their reason. While their virility legitimates their authority in the household, their body must be left behind so that they may judiciously take up their position as citizen. Analyzing the patriarchal political theories of Locke and Rousseau, which structure our American political beliefs, Oliver claims: "Implicit in the theories of both Locke and Rousseau are the contradictory claims that the authority of political society is based on right and not might, that only in nature does might constitute authority, that civil society supersedes nature, that the father's authority us based on natural strength and yet it becomes the basis for a legitimate patriarchal government that is based in right and not might" (Oliver 1997, 164).
Importantly, what allows men to trade in their might for right is through the sacrifice of women. By imposing onto women the responsibility of tending to the bodily needs of men and doing their emotional work, men free themselves up for rational interactions in the social realm. However, by legitimating their authority on the strength of their bodies, men ultimately regress back to the natural realm. Their wish to drive a wedge between nature and culture cannot be fulfilled; the return of the repressed paternal body threatens the stability of paternal authority on its own terms of right versus might. The second major argument in Oliver's work, that we need not adopt a model of intersubjectivity that involves a struggle for life over death between two warring subjects, begins with unraveling what Oliver means by "they are not properly subjects." Oliver's work reimagines human beings as subjects who are not wholly contained within themselves, but are the product of an ongoing exchange with other human beings. Subjectivity is fundamentally intersubjectivity for Oliver. She supports this claim with various arguments as well. For example, Oliver calls into question philosopher's preoccupation with sight; she challenges the age-old truism, seeing is believing. If one relies on sight to establish justification of the existence of other human being--the term more commonly used is recognition--then one ineluctably creates a distance between self and other. After all, sight for the psychoanalyst, establishes both castration and lack. The little boy points out to the little girl that her penis is missing, maybe it was cut off? Maybe the father castrated the mother's penis? In the place of sight or recognition as methods of bridging from one subject to another, she offers another model of understanding subjectivity: the circulatory model. She metaphorizes this model by thinking of the operations of the placenta: "The placenta sets up the circulatory communication between (and within) the maternal body and the fetus so that rather than destroy each other, through the mediation of the placenta, they engage in mutually beneficial fluid exchange" (Oliver 1998, 169). Pursuing further the notion of "fluid exchange," she uses this metaphor to describe our experience of ourselves. "Our experience of ourselves is not as a fortress defending itself against the outside world. Instead, we experience ourselves as flux and flows of moods, sensations, and thoughts that are changing. In fact, it is difficult, maybe impossible, to take some metaperspective on one's own changing persona. We cannot step out of the circulation of ourselves and our relations towards others" (169). Our relations to others continuously influence us -- these relations come first, autonomy is perhaps a retreat from these antecedent relations.
Underscoring the mess that our obsession with sight brings us to, Oliver postulates that our very representation of how one sees misrepresents what actually occurs. She argues: "It is the illusion that smells travel into our noses, sounds into our ears, tastes into our mouths, but that sight somehow radiates out of our eyes. Yet, we see only because light travels into our eyes and meets our optic nerves. Our eyes appear to be solid, mirror reflecting images on their pupils, windows on to the soul. But they are porous and fluid. Like the other senses, vision is the result of pressures, vibrations, particles, and waves affecting the nerves. Visual images are surrounded and informed by tastes, smells, sounds and palpitations" (174).
Failing to carry some of these elements into our metaphors of sight, not only the elements that circulate between us making possible sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch, but also the porous elemental nature of our eyes, further supports philosophical descriptions of human encounters as requiring one cross a potentially hostile distance. Our very metaphorics of sight forget the "vibrations, particles, and waves" circulating between all humans, connecting them with one another, making vision possible.
Oliver's more recent work on witnessing as a model of social interchange seems to follow from her deconstruction of sight. Oliver turns to consider witnessing as the very process by which subjects come to be. As stated above, the usual modus operandi among contemporary philosophers is to regard recognition by another human being to be essential to claiming one's own identity, but this process invariably leads to some kind of violence. Through dialogue or discourse with others, one who is as of yet unrecognized must struggle for his or her recognition by those invested with the authority to grant this recognition. Recognition always entails relationships of dominance and subordination. Witnessing, however, for Oliver is a more fruitful metaphor for human becoming. Witnessing not only implies the juridical sense of eye-witness account, but also suggests the religious sense of "bearing witness" to what cannot be seen, what can never be seen, what is impossible to see. One becomes when another listens to her testimony -- allows her to speak about the inarticulate experiences welled up inside her very being. One cannot know in advance what will be said. Only by maintaining ethical relations to each other as "response-ability" can we allow each other to unfold, to testify to who they are. Oliver claims that "subjectivity and humanity are the result of witnessing" (Oliver, forthcoming). She elaborates this claim, by arguing: "Testifying to a witness opens up the space to step outside. For this reason, it is the process of testifying that the victim first comes to "know" their own experience" (Ibid.). Only when one can tell her story, one can begin to articulate her inner self -- a self that may well have endured great suffering. In telling one's story to another, one tells it to herself.
Consistently, Oliver works against any and all representations of humanity, femininity, motherhood or subjectivity that involve some primordial, necessary violence. She turns away from a heritage of feminist scholarship (Teresa Brennan, Julia Kristeva, and Judith Butler) influenced by the anthropologist Mary Douglas who claims that identity requires abjection -- abjecting anything foreign to the self in order to establish the stable boundaries of oneself. Oliver consistently argues that our very first relationships and all consequent relationships are not primordially built upon abjection, but rather fluid exchange. And in an attempt to further her project of reframing the ethical terrain, her new work focuses on the need to think our relations to each other in the fundamentally ethical comportment of witnessing.
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