• Reading Beauvoir

  • Μαρλέν Στρέρουβιτς | 27 May 09
  • The young woman, who wants to write an essay on Beauvoir tells me, she would not enjoy reading her. “It really gets you down,“ she says. She looks at the table and pushes the microphone back and forth. She says this sullenly. A bit defiantly. And hurt.

    First of all, we have to ask how it is that a text written in 1949 still is able to provoke this level of resistance today. This resistance itself confirms the validity of “The second Sex“. It is clear that this text confronts the young woman with truths she does not, or cannot, acknowledge. Otherwise she could have historicized this text and shut it away within itself. She could analyze the text instead of finding herself analyzed by it.

    And then again. I have sympathy with the resistance of this young woman. Consider the effort needed to work through and come up with a halfway secure point of view on the complex connections of epochs and cultures brought together in words like “women“, “women’s movement“ or “feminism“. Then a young woman has to do the hard work of registering the historical reality of mysogyny and then she has to learn to relate this to herself. To this is added the problem that truths about women is not part of the obvious curriculum. The truth about the history of women is being transmitted in special spaces. Feminist studies or gender studies. The universality of mysogyny is unbearably condensed into this split between women’s and general history. The history of one’s own gender in this condensation then has to be processed as trauma. Resisting this process is all too understandable.

    At this point precisely the complexity of the interconnections conditioning the situation itself begins to take effect in a new way. The question is in what environment will a young woman do this work of learning. With what aids. With what ipediments. Is this work accomplished with others or in isolation. The culture in which the young woman lives always has either a strengthening or a weakening effect. The efforts of the young woman have to be measured against that.


    And then. This process of working through history on the role of gender. This process should be a mutual effort of all genders. But that is precisely what the young woman cannot count on. It is left up to the women to learn to bear the burden of their history. This is a necessary process. Without a knowledge of this history it is neither possible to imagine a future nor to shape a present. Without historical knowledge there is no supposition of freedom. But the burden is double for women, for they have already had to let themselves be culturally derived in every single definition by the man. No hegemonic religion and hardly any sociology offers a definition of woman per se. Even this young woman has to see herself as the other in order to be able to explain her situation. Added to the derivation from man in the description of woman’s existence in the present is the historical derivation as victim. So the attempt to brush aside the burden of this realization. This attempt is all too understandable. Men, as the subject of history, are allowed the tool of suppression in this case. Woman as the double object of her past and present. It is then not surprising that someone reacts with wounded feelings. The wounds suffered are real and painful. Beauvoir then is made responsible as the messenger of truth for the pain of truth. – The history of the liberation of women as the history of their unfreedom is marked by cultural differences and an all displacing asynchronicity.

    “Well. It is a game and everyone clearly knows the rules.“ This sentence occurs in a 1932 work of English light fiction. It refers to the fashion of this period which reverts to the emphatically feminine of the late 19th century. People danced in clothes which were disguises. The young women in evening dress, with trains and bodices, are in the view of the novel’s author not in danger of wanting to give up their newly won independence through this fashion. The English author Dorothy Sayers can, in her depiction of English society, rely on young women being aware of their situation and having already opted for independence and finding their happiness in so doing. In English light belle lettres, such a thing can casually be supposed as self-evident.

    In respect to French society Simone de Beauvoir takes a wholly different view. In 1949 she describes exatly the opposite in The Second Sex. The rules of the game are not known to women. They cannot be known by women. They are communicated to women unconsciously. Women’s dependencies are inserted into culture in an unrecognizable way and can only be unearthed by a conscious act of questioning. Beauvoir assumes that women are trained to stay girls in the form of a narcisist dependency to which they then adhere all theirs lives. Prey and the wifely construct the poles between a woman’s life spent in a continuous present. A construction of the self as a positing of freedom is possible and desirable for a woman. Under the given circumstances success cannot be promised. Happiness plays no role in this concept.

    The possibility for a woman to conceptualize herself ist determined by her culture and her place in it. In 1932 the Englishwoman Dorothy Sayers is able to watch in a relaxed fashion young women making their own independent life’s solutions.And let us remember. Since the 18th century English literature has taught us how capitalism affects gender. The first thing that is decisive for a person is how much she possesses. Gender decides the fashion of expression. In this literature we read endless considerations of who can marry whom, on the basis of who possesses what. Morality only governs the way the genders deal with each other. Unions will be decided by possession. These societal rules form everyone’s point of reference and are the construction underlying the societal narrative. The rules are known. Self-positing may take place.

    In 1949 Catholic bourgeois France. In this society Simone de Beauvoir can only locate women as the derived other. Though there is a separation of church and state, the church reigns in the private realm and formulates gender first as sons and daughters. Before consciousness can be developed metaphysical illusion has invaded the future. Women themselves pass on their own hollowness in the raising of hteir daughters. The mother’s instruction “be like me“ is the first commendment of the perdition of bourgeois Catholic daughters. Societal conventions complete what families begin. The temptation to rise through being the accomplice of the man is always there, undermining a woman’s refusal to be the other. A woman’s “we“ never emerges within a conscious knowledge of the situation. Why then should a woman resist the temptation of subservience. Especially if she has borne children and so fell into an additional dependency.


    If we then turn towards the historic model of our own culture and look at Austria in the year 2007 in order to explain the resentment of the young woman who wants to do the interview about Simone de Beauvoir, our analysis will bring to light that we have no rules at all, because there is nothing we could call the societal and therefore there actually should be no men. Where there is no society, there is no culture and therefore no narrative of rules. Men also do not know the rules. Therefore if men in this country turn up again in tail coats and know exactly how to tie a bow tie, we should worry that they may once again become cavaliers and fall back into 19th century chivalry. This could mean that one won’t get a door gleefully slammed in one’s face, because many an Austrian man believes impolite behaviour would be an act of liberating women.

    Never could a work of light fiction be able to leave the objects of its observation, in such a friendly way, to their own devices as in the English example. However, how is it that there are men, although there is no society that can generate a culture in which one can find a description of what a man is, how a man should be. What expectations and desires describe a man. Austrian history after 1918 has never led to a commonly shared self-conception. The emergence of a self-image was always impeded by the struggle over the power of definition of what society should be. Society was at best confused with class nostalgia. But, if there is no positive description of a signifying unit such as “man“, then the definition in a Catholic tradition can always be based on the negative description of the other. This is always the first step in racism, as is well known. The lack of societal description of man is in this country compensated in a double way by the othering of woman. The European, Western, Christian negatively derived description of woman is what creates the definition of man in the first place and is in turn, through a reflexive process, applied, with new force, to woman.


    The young austrian womn is right to look at this in a defiant way. Reading Beauvoir opens up to her a societal view of woman’s tragedy in a decadent, but firmly constituted society. From this analysis the young Austrian woman has to draw her own conclusions about her post-fascist, hollowed out society, a part of whose elite continues today to press for implementation of the fascist mission of turning back the clock to a time before the French Revolution. However, the small possibility that exists for this young woman to posit her transcendence lies precisely in deriving her civil rights from this revolution. Only on the basis of the definition of the rights of the person to liberty is the subject thinkable in the first place, the subject that “concretely posits herself, through conceptualization, as a transcendence.“ If the young woman arrives at this point in working through her emancipation, then the English example comes into play again, this time as the grand narrative of neoliberalism, behind wihich the fascist opposistion to the Enlightment can take on a new life. This opposition feeds on neoliberal globalization’s need to declare war on autonomous thinking and working. This narrative asserts a universality of rules, as in the 1932 example. The rules of the game referred to there are asserted globally but are only applicable locally and so are not transferable. A dense net of such rules veils neoliberal society’s emptiness. The attempts at copying Academy Awards evenings for example are painful exhibits of this emptiness.

    Most profoundly, these apparent transfers of rules encroach on the defintion of gender. Meanwhile, in the finishing processes of neoliberal schooling pragmativ half-knowledge and precarious work conditions completely destroy the possibility of individualistic self-positing.

    The young woman would have to socialize the results of her personal cultural work without being able to relate this to the societal. She then has to submit these results to some sort of community to wrest a remnant of freedom for herself. But first of all we would like to see this young woman in a secure situation through a paid job and then, and only then, we can ask the question of how her transcendence as a woman might look.


    The world has seen no social progress, only transformations. Radical transformations and through them radical restrictions. Precisely for this reason, reading Beauvoir’s work is indispensable. So the introduction to The Second Sex represents something like a baseline for an indispensable conceptualization. It is a luxurious conceptualization that nowadays could no longer be thought in the same way. And precisely because so much has changed and because autonomous thinking has been impoverished through a violent framework and the impossibility of earning one’s living. Precisely for this reason we need to turn to the richness of her conceptualization. Nothing can replace experiencing the resonance of Beauvoir’svoice in one’s own thinking. Nothing can be more precious than the sensing of the congruence of epistemological interests. Nothing is more inspiring than listening to this rigorous and stern voice.

    No theme has more dominated the last 30 years’ discussion than that of the women’s movement. And while the discussion was carried on tempestuously it redundantly did not progress or even lead backwards.

    When today I take a specific brand of pantyhose out of its package, I find the firm’s product image. In a brief visual history I am told how a woman is determined. A large picture shows the woman’s upper body clothed in a bodystocking. From the picture she looks at the observer. Challenging. A small image shows her with a bustier. The woman gazes out from the picture invitingly to the left. In a still larger photo a white body and a sulky glance toward the right. The penultimate picture is small and the woman is crouched on a step with her buttocks prominently featured. Her face is in shadows and she looks searchingly behind her. In the last picture it is only the lower body that is shown. The straight leg up to the hip on high heels. The pray is laid out for the hunter’s gratification.

    These pictures are intended for women. It is always breathtaking how much the internalized gaze of the man within the woman can be counted on as a matter of course. One of those guys who are so comfortable holding forth on all subjects would say that we don’t have to take this seriously. But. For the young woman this is a self-evident part of what she is to understand as culture. And. In its self-evident nature, advertismement is the true successor of the Catholic church, and in this the rules remain within the unknown unconscious. This would be good grounds for moblizing all of our vigilance and strength to insist that deprecation cannot be communicated in so self-evident a way.

    Men? They need to read Beauvoir. With neoliberalism’s dissolution of societal relations, they will not be able to be differentiated from women. In neoliberalism there is once again first money and then gender. The middle class of the 1932 example has long ago been sacrificed. This crosses with the present non-societal struggle of the different camps and with neoliberalism’s disintegration of the subject. At the intersection of this vacuum the male will also be dissolved. The cute athletic chaps in the frozen-food ads, mirroring an underwear ad with naked women. These cute chaps are merely the avant-garde, covered by now only with swimming trunks, of an evolution which by now next to money only recognizes the beautiful naked body as currency. This is reminiscent of the education of women to become the eternal nacissistic girl. And what does this mean? Look it up in Beauvoir.