A Certain Lack of Symmetry: Beauvoir on Autonomous Agency and Women's Embodiment

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Editors: Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 15,457 words

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[(essay date 1998) In the following essay, Mackenzie contends that Beauvoir's account of how oppression "structures the psyches and the bodies of women" in The Second Sex is both limited by and calls into question the existentialist concept of "autonomous agency," which occupies a crucial position in the author's depiction of woman as the "Absolute Other."]

The terms masculine and feminine are used symmetrically only as a matter of form, as on legal papers. In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity ... just as for the ancients there was an absolute vertical with reference to which the oblique was defined, so there is an absolute human type, the masculine.(Simone de Beauvoir)1

In the Introduction to The Second Sex Beauvoir lays out for the reader the conceptual grid that will be employed in her analysis of woman's situation. A number of interconnected categories and oppositions feature significantly in this grid, categories and oppositions which Beauvoir claims she derives directly from Sartrean existentialism. Distinctions such as subject/object, transcendence/immanence, authenticity/bad faith and concepts such as 'freedom' and 'the project' are thus introduced from the outset. In the body of the text these are supplemented by others such as self-consciousness/Life. Chief among these interpretative categories is the opposition Essential One/Inessential Other. Beauvoir asserts that this opposition, and in particular the category of the Other, is 'as primordial as consciousness itself', figuring in all mythologies and cultures (SS [The Second Sex] 16). Primordial or not, if we are to believe her it seems that an understanding of the philosophical implications of this category had to wait for the phenomenology of Hegel and the ontology of Sartre.2 It is their understanding of the self/other opposition that Beauvoir claims she is using to throw light on the situation of women.

Given the extent of authorial guidance as to how the text should be read The Second Sex should by rights present the conscientious reader with no major interpretative obstacles. So what is to be made of the fact that the text is knotted with contradictions? In recent criticism one tendency has been to argue that these internal difficulties arise as a result of Beauvoir's application to woman's situation of the very categories, including that of the Other, which she regards as facilitating her analysis.3 These arguments suggest that these categories in their original Hegelian and Sartrean contexts are inextricably connected with a fundamental hierarchical opposition between masculine and feminine in which the feminine is associated with whatever is devalued and to be transcended. Beauvoir's ability so strikingly to illuminate the situation of women is thus all the more remarkable. It is an achievement despite, rather than because of, her philosophical framework.

Another view, that of Moira...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420093255