Essences and difference

Sun, 23/06/2013 - 13:34 -- damien
Issues arising from "... but never by chance..."

" ... but never by chance ... ", curated by Linda Marie Walker, is an exhibition of seven female artists and a publication of seven female writers. The subject of the exhibition and publication is eroticism and, as a women's event, female eroticism. This presupposes that one may speak "as a woman" upon a topic that originates in the gendered body. " ... but never by chance ... " provokes some considerations on the "essence" that is in question in both essentialism and the essential difference surrounding feminist thought.

Essentialism has become somewhat of a catchword in feminist debate, an accusatory label of reductionist thinking. It has become equated with the term "biologism" and the confusion of feminism with biologically gendered experiences. The confusion of these terms essentialism and biologism seems to originate in earlier conceptions of feminist thought which were based on a distinction between sex and gender. Briefly, in this article, I wish to assert that the sex/ gender distinction has outlived its usefulness! and that a re-appraisal of essentialism is vital to the future of feminism(s). I will refer to the artworks of " ... but never by chance ... " and to the curatorial rationale and critical parameters of the exhibition. I wish to refute the equivalence of the terms biologism and essentialism. Feminism is all about an irreducible difference. This is not a (biological) difference between man and woman, nor a (metaphysical) difference in woman's nature but a (political) difference in the feminist conception of women and the world. In elaborating and appraising debates upon essentialism I wish to draw upon the thoughts of two major feminist writers and teachers: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Teresa de Lauretis. I then wish to examine how the conceptions and preconceptions of feminist theory affect readings of a women's event like " ... but never by chance ... ". I wish to frame my critical reading of " ... but never by chance ... " in reference to the work of feminist writer Catharine MacKinnon. A popular conception of feminist thought is that it attempts to articulate a sex/gender distinction where sex is a biological and bodily reality (of male/ female) and gender is the sociopolitical, cultural and psychological construction (of masculinity/ femininity). Such a distinction posits bodily experiences as "raw material" awaiting moulding from other outside forces. It is gender (or culture) that is regarded as active and variable. Apart from falling into the trap of patriarchal binary logic (mind/ body; emotion/ reason; nature/ culture), the sex/gender distinction perpetuates a naturalist niche for bodily experience.


The choice of new terms such as embodiment and corporeality challenge these conceptual limitations. Sex and sex differences are intimately connected to the cultural definitions and practices that constitute gender and there is a vital need for a different mode of conceptualising the relationship between sex and gender other than as a simple dichotomy. Such new conceptions are necessary not only in order to articulate the differences between men and women but between women and women, men and men. To see men and women as empirically different, rather than seeing a sex/ gender dialogue which is processual, reflexive and constructed, is to reify relations of gender, to see sex/ gender relations as fixed rather than (con)textual. Such a dialogue ultimately has value for re-evaluating subjectivity and identity in relation not only to experiences of sex/gender but also class, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Gender becomes one of many ideological and organisational principles to impact upon bodily experience and to inform subjective representations of the self, and vice versa. The subject is seen as a site of differences so that the differences between women may be extended to, but remain distinct from, differences within women.


This leads to the intersection of feminism and pluralism (or postmodernism) and to the notion of feminisms- a feminism which articulates and recuperates differences, but based firmly in a political will. This intersection is also the place where the term post feminism is coined and this term must be wholly repudiated if feminism is to continue to discover and recover contemporary and historical sex/ gender relations2 " ... but never by chance ... " is a celebration of female eroticism which "contributes to an already extensive archive of erotic work by women".3 Linda Marie Walker's curatorial rationale for the exhibition " ... but never by chance ... " and her introduction to the publication " ... but never by chance ... " failed to critically situate the plurality of voices and claimed that female eroticism is an unexceptionally positive force. This claim is politically naive and is founded, I believe, in a sex/ gender distinction which sources eroticism within the "raw material" of bodily experience. Further than this, Walker suggests that an erotics of the text may in fact supplant a critical appraisal, so that the viewer (like the curator) is invited to read the texts and view the works erotically. This argument would certainly seem to be supported by poststructuralist theory such as Irigaray, Cixous and the later writings of Barthes. I would, however, assert that this is a problematic and unuseful reading (of Irigaray in particular) and that it is a subsumption and not a celebration of difference. Lying at the heart of the debate between postfeminist pluralism and politically strategic feminisms , as I see it, is the ever elusive meaning of the term essentialism. Postmodern discourses have launched a unified attack upon the metaphysics of essences central to Enlightenment humanism. Feminist discourse is a major ally (and indeed forerunner) in this attack. The essential difference of feminism which guides its deconstructive path is not a totalising metaphysics but a political will. As Gayatri Spivak explains:


Once we have established the story of the straight, white, Judeo-Christian, heterosexual man of property as the ethical universal, we must not replicate the same trajectory.... One of the first things to do is to think through the limits of one's power. One must ruthlessly undermine ... the story of the ethical universal, the hero. But the alternative is not constantly to evoke multiplicity; the alternative is to know and to teach the student the awareness that this is a limited sample because of one's own inclinations and capacities to learn enough to take a larger sample. And this kind of work should be a collective enterprise. 4


Postmodern discourse has been labelled as an anti-essentialising metaphysics which is exclusive of a feminism firmly rooted in humanist claims. Such a dichotomy is patently false and can only be read as part of the backlash against women in recent years. Once again, as Gayatri Spivak explains:


Essences, it seems to me, are just a kind of content. All content is not essence. Why be so nervous about it? Why not demote the word 'essence ', because without a minimalizable essence, and now I'm thinking of Derrida's notion of a minimal ide<1lization, without a minimalizable essence, an essence as ce qui reste, an essence as what remains, there is no exchange. Difference articulates these negotiable essences. So, I have no time for essence/ anti-essence.S


Spivak goes on to elaborate that anti-essentialist metaphysics (poststructuralist discourse) and a reactionary pluralism actually give rise to a "politics of over-determination". She bemoans the fact that political philosophies (such as Marxism and Feminism) have become static and impeded from moving forward because of this constructed opposition between essence/ anti-essence . The essential difference which is feminism is strategic, something which is re-iterated by Teresa de Lauretis:


... barring the case in which woman's 'essence' is taken as absolute being or substance in the tradi tional metaphysical sense (and this may actually be the case for a few , truly fundamentalist thinkers to whom the term essentialist would properly apply), for the great majority of feminists the 'essence' of woman is more like the essence of the triangle rather than the essence of the thing-in-itself: it is the specific properties (e.g. , a female-sexed body), qualities (a disposition to nurturance, a certain relation to the body, etcetera), or necessary attributes (for instance, the experience of femaleness , of living in the world as female) that women have developed or have been bound to historically, in their differently patriarchal sociocultural contexts, which make them women, and not men. One may prefer one triangle, one definition of women and/ or feminism, to another and, within her particular conditions and possibilities of existence, struggle to define the triangle she wants or wants to be feminists do want differently. And in these very struggles , I suggest, consist the historical development and the specific difference of feminist theory, the essence of the triangle. "6


In going on to discuss the artworks in " ... but never by chance ... " I wish to explore their critical, political and strategic potentials, their articulation of differences not only between and within women but also within eroticism. The founding premise for the exhibition and publication is the notion of female eroticism, which leads me to explore how sex/ gender impacts upon eroticism and eroticisation. The fundamental difference that such an exhibition and publication formulate is woman as an erotic subject, challenging the patriarchal economy of the woman-object. Thus one must return to the notion of subjectivity- a process and position that is gendered, from which a feminist politics can emerge. This gendered subjectivity, which is not a set of objectively identifiable attributes, emerges from social, historical , psychological and physiological experience.


Melanie Howard's paintings from Mandata Series explore various patterns and configurations of concentric circles, circles within squares, ellipses and so on. Where the title references these forms to the Mandala, the Buddhist symbol of universal harmony, placed in the context of " ... but never by chance ... " Howard's images refer to and draw upon the long tradition of vaginal core imagery in feminist art practice. The origins of such imagery (whether it be Georgia O'Keefe or Judy Chicago) have always had profound political impact. In imagery such as this a feminine aesthetic and a feminist will converge. Core imagery remains one of the most positive forms of l'ecriture feminine available to women visual artists. The ongoing use of this imagery by artists such as Melanie Howard and Marion Borgelt is testimony to its continued strategic relevance. In order to develop a feminist framework for " ... but never by chance ... ", analysing how sex/ gender impacts upon eroticism, subjectivity and our relationship to our bodies, one must not simply evoke the difference of female sexuality or argue for its autonomy but rather examine how sexuality is ordered by phallocentric power-defined by men, imposed on women and constitutive of gender relations .


In feminist terms, the fact that male power has power means that the interests of male sexuality construct what sexuality as such means in life, including the standard way it is allowed and recognised to be felt and expressed and experienced, in a way that determines women's biographies , including sexual ones. Existing theories, until they grasp this, will not only misattribute what they call female sexuality to women as such, as if it is not imposed on women daily, they will participate in enforcing the hegemony of the social construct 'desire', hence its product, 'sexuality', hence its construct 'woman', on the world."7


Couched as they are in celebratory terms , exhibitions and publications such as " ... but never by chance ... " are in danger of being read as straightforward examples of female eroticism (as presenting female eroticism as a straightforward thing), instead of creating a critical visual dialogue upon a male constructed view of female sexuality and a search for a sexuality able to define its own desires. I have moved from eroticism to sexuality and this is, perhaps, due a similar problem one experiences with the term eroticism.


 It is as if 'erotic', for example, can be taken as having an understood referent, although it is never defined. Except to imply that it is universal yet individual , ultimately variable and plastic . Essentially indefinable but overwhelmingly positive. 'Desire', the vicissitudes of which are endlessly extolled and philosophized in culture high and low, is not seen as fundamentally problematic or calling for explanation on the concrete, interpersonal operative level, unless (again) it is supposed to be there and is not ... To suggest that the sexual might be continuous with something other than sex itself- something like politics- is seldom done, is treated as detumescent, even by feminists.


Eroticism can no more be considered a socially neutral form of sexuality than can pornography. Once assigned to one of these categories, there is a danger that sexual imagery is isolated (ghettoised) in a limited formalist discourse and detached from mainstream social (moral and political) debate. The artworks of " .. but never by chance ... " resist such categorisation and reference their erotic voices to many of sexuality's social tropes. Sheridan Kennedy's three jewellery pieces Spade, Wave, and Astromancer, are based upon three of the seven souls of the Egyptians. These souls were called upon by the body for assistance on its path through the Western lands to the other world. "These jewels play at being devices for invoking the unknown parts of the 'psychosphere' and other strange territories of the body!"9 The jewels are ceremonial, intended for ritualistic use , adorning the wearer with the disguises and delusions of supernatural authority. "It is the mystic, rather than the initiated rationalist, who approaches the eroticism of knowledge, the energy generated by the intoxicated spirit. "IO Kennedy's pieces show how jewellery is continuous with forms of ornamental discourse which create self images of the body. This relationship with the body, fantasizing a projected image, is, she claims, an erotic one. She playfully explores the (real) relationship between power, knowledge, and bodily fantasy, through (unreal/costume) jewellery and its ornamental role. This (dis)credits masculine/ rationalist discourses of science and mathematics with irrationalist/ feminine principles and motivations. The effect is similar to the discursive strategies of Irigaray and Cixous who have femininely and feministly charged their philosophical and theoretical writings with personal , psychological and mythological narratives. The erotic nature of these multi-layered texts centres bodily and subjective experience. Similar to the historical development of core imagery, these writings have fundamentally altered the aesthetics of phallogocentric discourses through the use of essentialist strategies. 11 So too, Kennedy's jewelled installations challenge the aesthetics of the art form and its underlying relationship to the body. Bronia Iwanczak's Coaxing the Wound-positions for speech consists of clusters of objects loosely arranged on the wall. This dispersal belies the dominant metaphor of containment which permeates the work: sugar cubes caught in hair nets, egg shells within egg cups, welded spoons, a strapped phallus and reproductions of disciplined 1950's schoolgirls performing athletics. Iwanczak's work deals with the recent historical period which enables this exhibition of female erotica, a period which has included the sexual revolution of the sixties and the weakening of Christian morality. Iwanczak's piece is an ambivalent meditation upon sexual liberation. One wonders who has benefited the most from this era when: contraception

is still practised by and experimented on women; when rape and other violent crimes against women persist in the face of increased visibility; when the number of sole parent households has increased causing in turn an increasing gap in wealth between women and men; and when dominant experiences of sex for women are (still) fear, vulnerability and violation. 12 The sweet addictive substance of sugar contained within the hairnets both black and white (fantasies both romantic and perverse) hover around the more closely regulated appetites of bodily sustenance, health and fitness. Teaspoons welded into different couplings speak of social ritual and decorum (the tea ceremony) and a continuing orality.


Rosslynd Piggot's painting The Lovely Hermaphrodite depicts the reclining female nude (a dominant icon of Western culture from ancient Greece to the present day). In place of the woman's vulva there is a tiny penis. At first glance one fails to see this substitution , dominated as we are by the trappings of both eroticism and the feminine, their pervasive aesthetics and familiar contextual arrangements. Such a profoundly feminine image of beauty, passivity, perfection and efflorescence cannot be attributable to any woman or group of women but only to the patriarchal imagination of our cultural history. Rosemary Laing's photographic imagery previous to that shown in this exhibition, was also profoundly feminine. Her From Paradise series consists of long panels of rose blooms partnered with panels of highly polished steel, which reflect like mirrors. These images refer, as do Piggot's, to the impossibility of the feminine ideal, the constant objectification and self-surveillance which this ideal creates. Laing situates this ideal within the wider contexts of popular culture and sexual violence. Laing's (untitled) work in " ... but never by chance ... " consists of a series of cibachromes (roses; blood and guts; a vampire's bite; television static) connected by a pointed horizontal shaft of stainless steel. Laing brings into play the issues of sadomasochism and violence. The work explores the division between fantasy and reality and how this constitutes gendered sexual pleasure. Catharine MacKinnon discusses sadomasochistic sexuality in the following terms:


Speaking in roll terms, the one who pleasures in the illusion of freedom and security within the reality of danger is the 'girl'; the one who pleasures in the reality of freedom and security within the illusion of danger is the 'boy' .13


While it is true that women often find ways to resist masculine domination, it would be false to assume that they are ever completely free of it. Women also embrace the standards of women's place in this regime as 'our own' to varying degrees and in varying voices- as affirmation of identity and right to pleasure, in order to be loved and approved and paid, in order to just make it through another day. This brings us to the (feminist) question- which is the flipside to the premise for " ... but never by chance ... "- 'what do men want?' Pornography provides one answer to this question. Carol Rudyard's video installation, Body Language, dealt with the theme· of pornography in the construction of female eroticism. The video monitor was set within the private and serene realm of a middle class lounge room (leather lounge chair, coffee table, plants, etcetera). The video was made up of a number of symbolic narratives: the story of Eliza Fraser through Sidney Nolan's painting of Eliza Fraser; the mythology of the unicorn through early Renaissance tapestries; pornography through the image of a 'penthouse pet' crawling naked along a log in a rainforest; an autobiographical narrative through images of the artist's home and garden and a first person voice over. Thus the work is deeply disturbing in the fact that as Carol Rudyard attempts to speak her own erotica, her own pleasure and desire, she can only draw upon the dominant visual vocabularies of patriarchal culture (narratives of victimisation and humiliation) and a personal, private (and powerless) narrative of sheltered domesticity. The phrase, "Humiliation catered for", which is taken from a massage parlour advertisement, appears at intervals throughout the video. Through these narratives gender inequality has become both sexual and socially real.


Pornography is a means through which sexuality is socially constructed, a site of construction, a domain of exercise. It constructs women as things for sexual use and constructs its consumers to desperately want women to desperately want possession and cruelty and dehumanization. Inequality itself, subjection itself, hierarchy itself, objectification itself, with self-determination ecstatically relinquished, is the apparent content of women's sexual desire and desirabilityi4


In a similar way Jennifer Hamilton's panelled screen prints Abandon and Resist cannot speak the subjective desire, which lies between these two extremes. Where the cropped figures of Abandon are not recognisably male or female (though probably more masculine), the central figure of Resist is undoubtedly female. Women's sexual resistance, labelled frigidity, prudery, inhibition, and repression, can itself be sexualised, is part of the patriarchal economy of violation and force. A positive female desire written from the body will be a subversive use of the available vocabularies. It will be strategically political action. It will be a knowing arousal and it will be through knowledge and not through pleasure alone that the feminine may cease to be victim, passivity, availability, saleability. Given that eroticism, like any other domain, is informed with gender inequality and misogyny, when women speak it will be with a subjective image of their socialised and sexed feminine/ female bodies. It is the complex inter-relationship of sex and gender, of women's knowledge, pleasures and practices, which survive within oppressive norms and available spaces, which formulates the essential difference of feminism. If feminist theory fails to explore the strategies of essentialism then it will be unable to integrate the positions of its activist politics, its poststructuralist theories, and its humanist historical foundation. And the integration of these positions is vital to the future of feminism. 

To see men and women as empirically different, rather than seeing a sex/gender dialogue which is reflexive and constructed, is to reify relations of gender, to see sex/gender relations as fixed rather than (con}textual. 


1. Anne Edwards, "The Sex/Gender distinction: Has it outlived its usefulness'",

Australian Feminist Studies, Vol. 10 (Summer 1989), pp. 1-12.

2. I particularly take offence to criticism such as Feliciry Fenner's "Sexuality

in the work of six contemporary women painters" (At1 and Australia, Vol.

30, no. 1, Spring 1992) which perpetuates the patriarchal divisions of public/

private, political/ personal. The imagery of the artists she analyses, she

claims, is inherently personal rather than political. Not only does this deny

her role to critically situate this imagery but it is intensely insulting to the

history of feminist discourse which has fought on many (if not every) front.

3. Linda Marie Walker, introduction to the anthology " ... but never by

chance ... ", Experimental Arr Foundation, 1992.

4. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak with Ellen Rooney, "In a Word. Interview",

Differences.- A journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, Vol. I , no. 2 (Summer

1989), p. 147.

5. ibid. , p. 145.

6. Teresa de Lauretis, ''The Essence of the Triangle or, Taking the Risk of

Essentialism Seriously: Feminist Theory in Italy, The U.S., and Britain",

Differences.- A journal of Feminist Studies, Vol. I , no. 2 (Summer I989), pp.


7. Catharine A. MacKinnon, "Sexualiry, Pornography, and Method: 'Pleasure

under Patriarchy"', Feminism & Political The01y (ed. Cass R. Sunstein),

Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1990, pp. 207-239.

8. ibid., pp. 210-211.

9. Artist's statement, unpublished, 1992.

10. ibid.

11. judy Chicago's use of just these strategies was misunderstood (in much

the same way as that which I outlined in the second paragraph of this article)

by Llewellyn egrin, "The Flower", ex. cat. (curator Paul Zika), Hobart:

Plimsoll Gallery, 1992.

12. MacKinnon, op. cif.

13. ibid., p. 217.

14. ibid., p. 220.


The exhibition " ... but never by chance ... " originated from the Experimental Art Foundalion, Adelaide. It is being toured throughout Australia, and was shown at the Institute of Modem A11, Brisbane during May 1992. Photographs by John O'Brien, courtesy Institute of Modern Art. 

Beth Jackson is a Brisbane-based critic and is Curator/Cataloguer, Griffith University Art Collection.