Ethics and the Invention of Feminine Desire
By Cecilia Sj��holm


Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-4892-6

Chapter One

Morality and the Invention of Feminine Desire

Feminine Desire and Modernity

What is feminine desire? Contrasted with the political and ethical project of modernity, it has been made into an elusive object of speculation in literature, art, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. Unlike its masculine counterpart, feminine desire is rarely depicted as social engagement. Sexual rather than political, narcissistic rather than ambitious, it aims to satisfy sensual appetites and not the need for recognition and emancipation. While men strive for empowerment and change, women seek immediate satisfaction of the senses. The feminine, or so it goes, is a fluid language of sensuality and pleasure, a promise of soft, maternal eroticism in its domesticated form, or a threatening force of triumphant enjoyment or polymorphous perversity in its untamed version. Lingering between poetry and subversion, it has been depicted as mysterious, exhilarating, subversive, and titillating: a mythical object of excess and exaggeration, the dark hole of modern reason.

Even before psychoanalysis engaged the question of feminine desire, it was considered an enigma in the philosophical tradition. Modern philosophy makes it into a very particular problem-namely in relation to ethics. In the enlightenment debate, there is a discursive link between lack of morality or virtue and feminine desire. Women are judged either as "pure" or too sexual, too virtuous or too promiscuous. Whether excessive or insufficient, they do not fit the moral standard. Failing to incorporate virtue by way of their frivolous nature or their lack of education, women fall outside of the ethical community because their femininity prevents them from participating in the first place. While the moral subject is declared autonomous from the late eighteenth century on, it is still compromised by a moral weakness that is coded as feminine. In his essay on the sublime and the beautiful, Kant announces that women are incapable of sticking to moral principles: "Nothing of duty, nothing of compulsion, nothing of obligation! Woman is intolerant of all commands and all morose constraint. They do something only because it pleases them, and the art consists in making only that please them which is good." Failing to shoulder the freedom that accompanies the discovery of reason, women lack the capacity to apply reason to morality, although Kant will later declare this capacity to be universal. The above quote, however, cannot simply be said to be arbitrarily chosen when one looks at its place in a philosophical-historical thought, where weak, dependent women are described as pleasure-seeking and frivolous. The idea that feminine subjects lack moral reason returns in nineteenth-century thinkers. Displacing morality from the realm of reason to a social context, Hegel still regards women as creatures of pleasure and not reason; the laughing woman is the eternal irony of the ethical community. Kierkegaard, in turn, defined femininity in aesthetic rather than ethical terms. And Freud, who initiated the discussion on the enigmatic character of feminine desire properly speaking, regarded the female subject as having a weak super-ego, and therefore as a weakness in the moral development of the modern fabric. The notion that feminine desire is too little or too much in relation to ethical values, an excess or deficiency in the community, or exists outside of the social context subscribing to those values is a commonplace, traceable to a modern philosophical discourse that continues from Rousseau to Sade, Hegel to Kierkegaard, through Freud and Lacan.

Although a depreciative view of the feminine body appears already in ancient metaphysics, it becomes a problem properly speaking when it is associated with desire, sexuality, and pleasure in the philosophy of modernity, where the conflicts of new forms of consciousness are defined. A nebulous concept, modernity could be considered in terms of a multitude of conflicts that defined debates from the late eighteenth century until the beginning of the nineteenth century. These conflicts concern slave and master, individual and collective, law and divine rights, religion and politics, rights and responsibilities, family and state, private and public, and a split between the sexes. The idea that sexual difference entails a social conflict took on a particular significance in the upheavals of intellectual life of the late eighteenth century in Western Europe, at the juncture between enlightenment and romanticism. Writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Madame de Sta��l, Friedrich Schlegel, Bettina von Arnim, G. W.F. Hegel, and many others began to inquire about the status of women as subjects. Wollstonecraft's influential Vindication of the Rights of Woman helped formulate many of the emancipatory demands that we associate with modern feminism. Her thoughts depart from a more or less misogynistic tradition, in which sexual difference was considered to be a conflict that impeded the recognition of women as able social subjects. Sexual difference was in turn mapped onto another opposition, which must be added to the list of conflicts formulated in the philosophy of modernity-namely, the split between the corporeal world of the senses and the moral world of reason. Both Wollstonecraft and Hegel argued on different grounds and from different perspectives that the sexes were brought up in radically different spheres and were unable to quite respond to each other. For Wollstonecraft, women could all too easily lose themselves to corporeal and inauthentic desires. Hegel split desire into two: on the one hand, he considered it a political weapon, pitting slave against master in the quest for recognition. Thus it was associated with struggles for power and domination, change and development. Feminine desire, on the other hand, was sexual and corporeal. In the split between social and sexual desire, ethical and political concerns were detached from what Hegel considered the lower spheres, and a feminine domain came into being that was defined as natural, in contradistinction to the social and political world of the spirit.

There are, however, significant exceptions to the idea that women are merely sexual and corporeal. While feminine desire was mystified and sexualized, and considered excessive and childlike in much of the philosophical tradition, an emancipatory potential was also identified and explored. For this reason, contemporary thinkers have been fascinated by the stories of the Marquis de Sade, who explored the intersection between the newly won freedom of reason and sexual slavery. Sade's fictional women incarnate this intersection, in particular his alter ego, Juliette. It is a strange fact, perhaps, that one of the most famous "female" autobiographies in the history of philosophy is written by a man, praising the delices of rape and humiliation. And this riddle becomes even more interesting-not least for the purposes of this book-when one looks at his pornographic stories as allegorical satires of the subject of enlightenment: how are we to understand our bondage under sexual inclinations and desires when we are declared autonomous and free? It is of course not by chance that Sade chose women as proponents of the inquiry into this mystery-all philosophers did. The difference with Sade was that he did it in order to point to a universal problem that was not reducible to women. Celebrating her freedom in the service of an enslaving fantasy-that of an endless use of pleasure-Juliette gives a whole new meaning to the old figure of feminine desire as excessive and immoral, and she does so in order to undermine the enlightenment belief in the intrinsic relation between reason and freedom.

Feminine Desire and the Shortcomings of Virtue: The Case of Juliette

Sade's most extensive work, La nouvelle Justine ou les malheurs de la vertu suivie de l'histoire de Juliette, sa soeur, is the story of two sisters, one of whom is a virtuous victim, the other her perverted and sadistic counterpart. Their lives are intricately woven parallels, producing a double-layered portrait of the workings of feminine desire. Together, the sisters are less mirrors reflecting one another than multifaceted proponents of a dialectics without teleological direction. While Justine suffers rapes and humiliations she is subjected to with great pain, Juliette thoroughly enjoys the same thing, whether it is afflicted on others or on herself. Sade's novels resemble the educational treatises for girls that were so popular in his time, a genre revisited also by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft. One may in fact claim that the way he saw their respective fates is indicative of a dialectics between ethics and desire that Sade himself never saw to a conclusion, remaining content with widening the rift in the conflict set up by enlightenment philosophy. It is, of course, not by chance that female characters were used for this purpose. Juliette has been considered to be the most interesting figure in Sade's work by commentators such as Adorno and Horkheimer, Beauvoir, Lacan, and Angela Carter. Juliette is Sade's most political heroine. Moreover, she is Sade's alter ego. With her, a new, pornographic womanhood is invented that is as inhumane and powerful in its transgressions as the male libertine. Unlike Justine, Juliette takes an active part in her submission. Therefore, she does not commit the mistake of avoiding responsibility for her fate and acting like a victim. A true Sadean female hero enjoys her own submission, as Angela Carter has shown. Active heroines, like Juliette, are even more cruel than the men. Angela Carter has chosen to read the heroines as fictional proponents of emancipatory demands, claiming the "rights" of free sexuality for women. By enacting and countering the psychic fiction of female castration, Sade's novels are a powerful testimony to the potential subversiveness of feminine desire. Juliette is a true heroine of feminine eroticism, opposing repression through imitations of cruelty and abuse. Parodying through mimicry and exaggeration the conditions of power that regulate desire, Sade elevates her as a strong, perverted woman, thereby challenging a system where women had few constitutional rights. Describing sadists and masochists rather than masters and slaves, his work may seem a far cry from any struggle for emancipation. But the figure of Juliette points to an unexpected product of moral autonomy-the subversive potential of feminine enjoyment. Sade's superfluous aristocrats live in the delusion of unbound power and freedom. But, in fact, they are dependent upon the submission of others, tainted by struggle and dependency, humiliation rather than triumph. Enjoyment has nothing to do with self-interest or the submission of others to one's needs. Juliette displays a different logic of desire at work, where true enjoyment surpasses dependency. The victim is more free than the torturer because she does not need any object or any other individual to indulge her fantasy. Her perversion of feminine desire serves as a powerful subtext in Sade's writings, where moral autonomy as a consequence of the transcendentalism of reason is undermined.

Several authors have used Sade's debauched women to unravel what they perceive as the problem with the rationalism of the enlightenment. Identified by Kant, the modern subject is autonomous, rational, and free. Discarding the Aristotelian belief in an intrinsic relation between pleasure and the good, Kant refers pleasures to the domain of the pathological, which is dissociated from moral law. Kantian ethics presumes that the subject can prove its autonomy only by dissociating itself from desires and inclinations. As a consequence of this argument, the good can no longer be the equivalent of self-interest. The selfish subject is at odds with moral autonomy, and we cannot use self-love as a measure of morality. Needs and feelings, pleasure and discomfort, and all emotional conceptions of the good and the bad are examples of inclinations that must be considered separate from the definition of a moral sphere in order for its autonomy to be intellectually secured. Some authors, however-including Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Blanchot, and Jacques Lacan-have turned to the writings of Sade in order to examine dimensions of ethical problems and subjectivity that are repressed in Kant. From their perspective, Sade's maxims reveal the flip side of the Kantian subjection to moral law. Kant's categorical imperative exhorts us to act in such a manner that the maxim of our will is raised into universal law. Sade's writing is littered with phrases that read like travesties of this idea: "Let us take as the universal maxim of our conduct the right to enjoy any other person whatsoever as the instrument of our pleasure." The question is why Sade's law appears to be a joke whereas Kant's moral law incorporates reason. Formally, the injunctions may seem similar. But on closer inspection, in a surprising turn of the logic implied, the parallels are illusory. Surprisingly, Kant's discovery of moral autonomy seems to unleash Sade's stories of unbounded enjoyment. Claiming the use of another to be a universal right is, naturally, absurd. Sade never really transcends the barriers of solipsism; he just absorbs all forms of passion and pain into a machinery satisfying a hypertrophied self. The aim is to transcend every kind of conflict or rupture. Sadean law is, as Blanchot has noted, absolute egoism. His libertine is not an autonomous being but rather a life of omnipotent delusion lacking the laws and limits that secure the autonomy of the moral subject. The desire of the libertine, consequently, is always returned upon the self and never directed toward an object. The Sadean woman who takes pleasure in pain incarnates the most extreme example of the hypertrophied self. This is also why almost all interpreters have understood Juliette to be the alter ego of Sade. In Juliette, the abbess Delb��ne makes Juliette, Sade's cruelest heroine, into an atheist, by trying to convince her that nature is excess, and finite sexuality an invention of moral convention:

I go so far so as to repudiate a duty I consider to be as absurd as it is childish, commanding us not to do towards others that which we do not want them to do towards us. Nature advises us strictly in the opposite direction, since its only injunction is to find pleasures, whomever we may harm. Without doubt these maxims tell us that our pleasures may destroy the happiness of others; but should that make them less intense?

The abbess goes to the heart of the matter: either you use others for the sake of your own pleasure or you identify with the position of submission. In Sade's fiction, accordingly, desire is organized hierarchically, in asymmetrical positions of enjoyment versus submission. These positions are, by the way, reflected in the social hierarchy of his figures. The cruelest men are always those with most power. The women lack power, and therefore both freedom and rights. Aristocrats, popes, and priors kill for their own pleasure, and their victims are always unremarkable enough to disappear without leaving a trace. Most of the time they are, of course, young, poor, and seemingly expendable. At second sight, however, the truly expendable class consists of useless aristocrats and priests, who may have the power to subject their victims, but only to enjoy a humiliating freedom. The Sadean orgy is a metaphor for a social hierarchy lacking legitimacy in the age of reason. Its participants are degenerate and isolated.


Excerpted from THE ANTIGONE COMPLEXby Cecilia Sj��holm Copyright © 2004 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.