Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

Joan of Arc, Machiavelli

Describing Joan of Arc, Dworkin writes that her “story is not female until the end, when she died, like nine million other women, in flames.”1 To be female, that is, is to be subjected, indeed to be killed. For Dworkin, Joan of Arc is a hero because of her refusal to accept this subjection, a refusal to accept subjection that makes Joan a subject in her own right, autonomous and self-determining. But for Dworkin, these two sides, of subject and subjection, never seem to connect to one another. She endorses a particular conception of subjectivity, a form of subjectivity traditionally associated with men but denied to women, but does not consider that this model of subjectivity might depend on subjection (the subjection of somebody: in particular, women) for its coherence. “To want freedom is to want not only what men have, but what men are,”2 Dworkin writes, and I will contend that this is true in a more fundamental sense than Dworkin herself realizes: this construal of freedom is not something merely appropriated by men, but is fundamentally masculinist, implicated in systems of male dominance. Thus, “feminist revolution” requires a rethinking of the notion of subjectivity.

A little while ago I wrote this as the introduction to a paper, the argument of which it ended up not, really, introducing; so I cut it, with hopes of returning to it at some point. I was reminded of it when Dominic followed up a debate on subjective intentions, structure, and agency (which got trapped in a familar and depressing spiral) with a discussion of Dworkin (a much more hermenutically thoughtful reading of Dworkin than my own).

The uninterrogated reference to a masculinist construction of subjectivity in Dworkin’s Intercourse can be seen particularly clearly in her discussion of “militant virginity.” For Dworkin, Joan’s virginity is above all a physical integrity that comes to stand metonymically for a more general idea of subjective autonomy.3 Dworkin contrasts this sort of virginity with the virginity traditionally prized by Christianity, in which female purity is valued because it implies passivity.4 However, Dworkin does not mention another tradition of Christian virginity that appears much closer to Joan’s, the tradition of heroic masculine virginity that one finds in medieval romance and, in particular, the various forms of the Arthurian legend. Here, as with Joan, virginity is the virginity of warriors; and, again as with Joan, virginity is associated with activity and with self-posession (this is most strikingly apparent in the contrast between Lancelot, who is sent mad by physical intimacy with Elaine, and Galahad, who remains a virgin and is thus able to succeed on the quest for the Holy Grail). Read in a medieval context, then, Joan of Arc is, more even than Dworkin realizes, appropriating a masculine rôle; her virtue indeed has the masculine quality suggested by the etymology of that word.6 However, virtue is not masculine merely etymologically; the virility associated with virtue has a long tradtion as a form of masculine subjectivity predicated on the subordination of women. For this reason, the appropriation of masculine subjectivity, achieved by Joan and celebrated by Dworkin, is strictly limited as a mode of feminist resistance.

Rather than either of these Christian conceptions of virtue, Dworking construes Joan’s virtue according to an older, classical conception of virtue which is connected with strength, ability and (a connection Dworkin makes but, surprisingly, does not comment on), manliness. Here too, however, virtue is implicated in a masculinist conception of agency. The connection here lies in etymology (the “vir” in “virtue” being the Latin for “man”) but, perhaps more importantly, has a long tradition in political theory. One of the most prominent political theorists to emphasize this concept of virtue is Machiavelli; furthermore Machiavelli makes a great deal of the gendering that the term “virtue” carries with it, so studying Machiavelli’s political theory can make clear some of the problematic features of the understanding of agency that underlies Dworkin’s analysis of Joan.

Machiavelli employed the early-modern Italian term virtù, rather than the English virtue, a term which means virtue in the non-Christian sense discussed by Dworkin. In particular, as Machiavelli uses it, virtù has a definite sense of agency, or ability to act decisively, the sense foregrounded by Dworkin. Machiavelli, however, emphasizes the masculinity of virtù by defining this kind of agency by reference to its other, chance, which he personifies as the goddess Fortuna. The way these two terms map on to a gender binary is particularly clear in Machiavelli’s play The Mandrake Root, which is a kind of comedy of the sexes. The play concerns the attempt by the braggart Callimaco, with the assistance of the “rascally go-between” Ligurio,7 to seduce the young wife of the old and foolish Nicia. These three characters provide different images of masculine virtù. Callimaco is the heroic, active man of virtù, whose masculinity is defined by an overt agency. Callimaco says that he must “try something, grandiose or dangerous, ruinous or infamous,”8 a type of agency he later describes in explicity gendered terms: “Flee danger, but if you cannot, then confront it like a man. Don’t cringe like a woman!”9 Nicia is the mirror image of Callimaco, a man who is not properly manly because he does not act. He is literally impotent (the play opens with him unable to get his wife pregnant) and metaphorically so, too; his unmanliness is shown by his lack of control over his wife (as Callimaco puts it, “I wouldn’t call myself a husband if I couldn’t dominate my wife”10). Ligurio, finally, represents a third, more ambivalent presentation of masculinity, as he maintains his agency not through a direct and heroic action, but through manipulation and a careful negotiation of contingency.

What is important about all these constructions of masculinity is that they show how virtù, the masculine virtue of independent agency, is itself, paradoxically dependent on the feminine. This is most apparant in the case of Nicia, who is explicitly considered unmanly because of his inability to dominate his wife. However, it is also true in the case of the ambivalent heroes of the piece, Callimaco, whose heroic virtù is set into motion by the women he is trying to seduce and is, in the final analysis, dependent on her approval, and Ligurio, whose crafty virtù depends on taking into account how the women he is trying to dupe will respond to his actions. The point I want to make is to emphasize the way in which this idea of independent agency is gendered, and also the conceptual difficulties this masculine gendering of agency engenders. This latter is particularly apparent in The Prince, which is especially important as this is one of the foundational texts for the modern concept of the political subject. The discussion of the relationship between virtù and Fortuna occours throughout The Prince, but the conceptual difficulties and the gendered polarity of the terms are most visible in Machiavelli’s image of Fortuna as a flood, against which virtù is defined as a series of dikes and embankmments which perform two separate and not necessarily compatible functions, both channeling and resisting Fortuna.11 Machiavelli oscillates between these two responses to Fortuna, sometimes emphasizing the importance of adapting ones “course of action to the nature of the times”12 to such an extent that self-direction seems to disappear almost entirely. Indeed, I think it is in this response to this vanishing of autonomy that Machiavelli abruptly switches course, replacing the theme of adapting to Fortuna with direct opposition, at the same time as Fortuna’s gender is emphasized, with Machiavelli arguing for the need to “keep her down” and “command her,” using force “to beat her and struggle with her.”13

It is on this note that Machiavelli ends the chapter on the rôle of fortune in politics, perhaps hoping to exorcize with rhetorical violence the ambiguity that runs throughout the chapter. However, the conceptual difficulty remains; virtù, the masculine virtue of autonomy and self-direction, remains fraught. If to exercize virtù is to exert ones will in opposition to a woman, or the female godess Fortuna, then the concept of virtù requires the resistance of its female counterpart, which necessarily imples the possibility that this female resistance might be successful. This definition of masculine mastery is thus self-defeating, containing within the definition its own negation.

This makes clear some of the difficulties in the account of subjectivity that underlies Dworkin’s Intercourse. The identification of femaleness with subjection, which Dworkin counterposes to the freedom enjoyed by the male subject, is an inherent part of that male agency; thus the latter cannot be a genuine alternative to the former. Instead, the terms of Dworkin’s critique of women’s subjection reinstates that subjection. Dworkin’s position here exhibits the logic of what Brown calls “wounded attachments,” in which an identity is constructed around the “wound” produced by exclusion from the sovereign subjectivity of liberal modernity, in a way which re-installs that sovereign subject as the desired object.14 This, suggests Brown, leads to the doomed attempt by some feminists to achieve feminist ends solely by appealing to the very liberal legal structure they themselves recognize as iredeemably patriarchal.15 Dworkin’s account, that is, amounts to a critique of the effects of the modern understanding of agency in the terms of that account itself, where what is needed is a critique of this account of agency.

1Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997), 84.

2Dworkin, 99.

3Dworkin, 94. This metonymy stretches to bizarre dimensions in its connection to national autonomy as the bodily integrity of the nation (Dworkin, 83).

4Dworkin, 96.

6Dworkin, 85.

7Niccolò Machiavelli, The Portable Machiavelli, ed. and trans. Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), 381.

8Machiavelli, 441.

9Machiavelli, 441.

10Machiavelli, 450.

11Machiavelli, 159.

12Machiavelli, 160.

13Machiavelli, 162.

14Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 64-5.

15Brown, 94. Brown’s particular target here is MacKinnon, and her critcisms are particularly pertinent for this paper because she roots them in a criticism of MacKinnon’s appropriation of Marxism. Brown’s most excoriating criticism of MacKinnon concerns her “evisceration of history, generativity and dialectics from Marxism,” which “transforms it from radical political theory into an implicitly positivist, conservative project…. A different past never existed and the future contains no openings, no promises” (93-4).