Voyou Désœuvré

So, the new Girls Aloud single is pretty awesome. I can’t think of any other pop group who have sung so many songs about not having sex.

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse, in which she takes Joan of Arc as a hero for exemplifying “militant virginity.” This is part of a series of intriguing but, as far as I can see, untheorized, valorizations of bodily integrity, privacy, and autonomy. The continuing slippage between the bodily and the political is interesting; even more interesting, however, is the way this valorization of autonomy proceeds. Dworkin writes of the connection between Joan of Arc’s virginity and her virtue:

Joan wanted to be virtuous in the old sense, before the Christians got hold of it: virtuous meant brave, valiant. She incarnated virtue in its original meaning: strength or manliness. Her virginity was an essential element of her virility, her autonomy…. Virginity was freedom from the real meaning of being female.

What I find so surprising here is that, far from objecting to this connection between autonomy, virtue, virility and manliness, Dworkin seems to embrace it. I’m reminded of Mary Wollstencraft, who argues explicitly in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman that the problem with the virtues advocated by (patriarchal) society is not the virtues themselves, but the fact that women are excluded from this sort of virtuousness. But Wollstencraft is more consistent, because less insightful, than Dworkin. Much of Intercourse is taken up with a discussion of the harmful effects of virility and masculine autonomy; yet these same qualities become praiseworthy when exhibited by a woman.

What seems to be lacking is a structural critique; there is no account of the structures of gender, no account of why men oppress women in the way they do. Such oppression is simply taken as a tautology, and thus naturalized, no doubt against Dworkin’s intentions. If gender isn’t defined structurally, how is it defined? I think Butler is right to say that it is defined solely by contrast with biological sex, which ultimately, in a disavowed form, depends on an appeal to biological natures. Gender construed in this way makes it difficult if not impossible to see how effective resistance could ever take place; this is, it seems to me, the value of Butler’s critique of the sex/gender distinction.


  1. Rachel, 4:42 am, July 24, 2007

    Completely unconnected to the post, but Chomsky on theory. Have you seen this before?

  2. Dominic, 7:55 am, July 24, 2007

    Huzzah, people are now reading Dworkin sensibly! Or at least you are, which is certainly a start.

    The whole 2nd-wave rad fem moment is hugely interesting to me – even their mistakes were kind of heroic, in my view. Dworkin in particular is long overdue some serious critical appraisal.

  3. voyou, 5:45 pm, July 25, 2007

    Have you seen Chomsky and Foucault on YouTube? For an intellectual, Chomsky is surprisingly anti-intellectual.

    Dominic, I’m also planning on reading some MacKinnon soon, and thinking about the relationship between 1980s radical feminism and other post-60s feminist currents, so hopefully I’ll have more to say on this in a bit.

  4. J, 1:46 pm, July 26, 2007

    Surely the tie up between virginity, and valiant virtuousness ( taming natural rampant masculinity and turning it to ‘Good ends’) is an essential ingredient of many mediaeval stories from Sir Gawaine to Malory, with Sir Galahad and so on, right down to Arnold’s Rugby. These may have been the virtues Joan wished to pursue. What about Shaw’s St. Joan do you think?

  5. voyou, 8:15 pm, July 26, 2007

    That’s an interesting thought, and goes strongly against Dworkin’s reading. Dworkin interprets Joan’s virginity as having nothing to do with Christian concepts of purity, which she uses to support her connection of virginity with autonomy; the idea is, roughly, that the only way for women to achieve political integrity/autonomy is to preserve their bodily integrity/privacy. If Joan of Arc exists in a tradition of male militant virginity, though, Dworkin’s argument seems less plausible.

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