The Phenomenal Woman
The Phenomenal Woman
Introduction: Fleshy Metaphysics
PHENOMENAL: extraordinary, exceptional, prodigious, unnatural, marvellous, amazing; often used hyperbolically in reference to some object or person of extraordinary power, gifts or other quality which excites wonder.
PHENOMENAL: in philosophy, that which has the nature of a 'phenomenon' (pl. 'phenomena) and is the object of sense experience; applied to that which only seems to exist but which is a mere illusion of the senses; often opposed to that which is 'real', 'objective' or 'noumenal'.
In the history of western metaphysics 'woman' is phenomenal in a double sense. She's something wonderful, amazing, astonishing, peculiar. But she's also just a surface deviation; mere 'appearance'; unrepresentative of that distinctive, underlying 'essence' of humanity that philosophers have associated with 'truth'. She falls outside 'essence' - or the defining characteristics of a species or thing - in ways that have been supposed to make it a mistake to look for an essence of female nature or experience.
I write from within a post-Kantian tradition of philosophy, analysing the philosophical concepts of the transcendental ego, 'personhood' and related notions of spatial and temporal self-identity. However, since the subject of woman has always only ever been at the margins of philosophical discourse, I move between two conceptual and experiential registers. On the one hand, there are the language and traditions of philosophy in which the 'real' world has been constituted as the merely 'phenomenal' world. On the other hand, there is also the language of women's singularity and the need to talk of that 'real' or 'phenomenal' female body which has fallen outside the universals of philosophy.
In my current project I am seeking to use the antinomies of the female subject-position to think identity anew. I am not positing an 'other' form of subjectivity which is that of the 'feminine' or 'female' subject. Instead, I am asking what happens if we model personal and individual identity in terms of the female. Rather than treating women as somehow exceptional, I start from the question of what would have to change were we to take seriously the notion that a 'person' could normally, at least always potentially, become two. What would happen if we thought identity in terms that did not make it always spatially and temporally oppositional to other entities? Could we retain a notion of self-identity if we did not privilege that which is self-contained and self-directed?
Immanuel Kant's 'Copernican revolution' sought to rewrite philosophical tradition by placing man - instead of God or the object - at the centre of the reality which we inhabit. My own feminist philosophical turn displaces the apparently gender-neutral Kantian self at the centre of the knowable world. However, instead of dispensing with the self in ways now fashionable in the postmodern tradition, I am attempting to construct a new subject-position that makes women typical. In effect, this means dispensing with the (Kantian) notion that the 'I' gives form to reality by imposing a grid of spatio-temporal relationships upon otherwise unformed 'matter'. Focusing on the female subject involves treating humans as non-autonomous, and instead thinking relationships of dependence (childhood/weaning/rearing) through which one attains selfhood. It also involves thinking the process of birthing as neither monstrous nor abnormal. Mothering, parenting and the fact of being born need to become fully integrated into what is entailed in being a human 'person' or 'self'.
In 1994, as I started to write the opening chapters of this book, I sat looking at the sunset over the sea, and chatting with one of the villagers from the obscure Cornish village which I had decided to make my base. He was in his mid-forties, had not been to college, and