The Contaminated Subject: Passions, Power and Care.
Elena Pulcini, University of Florence, Italy
Keywords: Subject, Power, Care
Since the first meetings of the Travelling Concepts working group, I realised that unlike many colleagues I did not have any teaching experience in the field of Gender Studies. Despite having aimed part of my research work in this direction and having written various works on topics relating to women, I have never held a proper course on these problems. However, at the same time, in my teaching work, I have always taken this aspect into consideration, explicitly bringing it up every time I thought it necessary, with theoretical and methodological references, which in my opinion were a precious enrichment of the topics being dealt with.
My main field of research concerns the theory of the modern subject (or rather the individual), seen from the perspective of a theory of passions. In particular, I have placed attention on the pathologies of the modern individual, on the crisis of the social bond and possible ways of rebuilding the relationship starting from an ‘other’ subjectivity to the hegemonic models of modernity (Cartesian subject, homo oeconomicus, on which see Pulcini, 2001). These topics can be traced back to Social Philosophy rather than Political Philosophy, in which I was educated, first as a student and then as a young researcher. I currently teach at the Department of Philosophy in Florence, where I am a full professor in Social Philosophy, and I am determined to enhance this discipline which, unlike in other European countries such as Germany, France and England, does not have a consolidated tradition in Italy, as it has always been relegated to an ancillary position with respect to Political Philosophy. And it is precisely by taking up the perspective of Social Philosophy that the viewpoint of Gender Studies and feminist research (1) has proved particularly fruitful for me, opening up new horizons as regards the Self/other relationship which in my opinion is the fundamental theoretical core of Social Philosophy. In general, I could say, the perspective of Gender Studies has fitted in well with my critical approach to the theory of the modern subject and the individual originating from Cartesian thinking.
There are essentially three theoretical views of feminism that have influenced my work. First of all, the ‘thought of sexual difference’, which, starting with Luce Irigaray, developed strongly in Italy - think of Luisa Muraro (1991) and the Diotima group, and Adriana Cavarero (1997). I have had moments of agreement with this field of Italian feminism , as several times since the 1970s I have found myself involved in political movements and action. Yet it has also been a problematic relationship, and at times one of great dissidence. In fact, in this perspective I often felt the risk of essentialism and an excessive emphasis on the ‘maternal’ dimension, as well as the risk of the reappearance of protective attitudes. The aspect that I agreed with most was what I would like to define as an ‘ontology of duality’, which can effectively be opposed to the Western and modern vision of a neutral and monological subject.
Secondly , the reflections in the United States and Europe around the ‘ethics of care’, as proposed by Carol Gilligan (1987). In this proposal founded on the idea of women’s tendency towards connection and empathy towards the other, I immediately recognised the possibility of commonality with my reflections on passions and emotional life, of identifying a ‘normative’ point of reference for a subjectivity open to otherness precisely because it is capable of ‘feeling differently’. But also in this case I felt there was a risk of essentialism (women have a ‘natural’ bent for care, etc.) and therefore I tried to rethink the concept of care, freeing myself from its ‘maternal’ and ‘altruistic’ ties.
Last, but not least, in the third place, the perspective that I already hinted at above of feminism as a ‘critique’ that came about in the United States with the works by, for example, Jessica Benjamin (1991) and Sheila Benhabib (1987), Jean Elshtain (1981) and Susan Moller Okin (1979) (who in part has European roots in the thought of the Frankfurt School); which has been a fundamental point of reference for me since I began my research. This school of thought has allowed me better to focus on the aporias and contradictions in the liberal theory of the individual, so that I could better reflect on the connection between a particular image of subjectivity and the crisis of the social bond that has struck contemporary democratic societies.
In other words, comparing my own position with these three fields of feminist theory was very fruitful in developing the idea of a relational subject, which I tried to reformulate, as can be seen further on, through the concept of a contaminated subject (2), an idea for which I owe much to a tradition of thought that is given little attention in Italy: that is, the theoreticians of the Collège de Sociologie, and particularly Georges Bataille (1973). However, I was struck by the lack of attention in feminism to the dimension of the passions, sentiments and emotional life; a lack partially due in my opinion to a sort of suspicion, especially in Italian feminism, towards psychoanalysis.
Instead, I believe that when reread critically the psychoanalytic tradition can contribute remarkably to reflection on the subject, especially against the aporias and limits of philosophic discourse. This is why I found it interesting to weigh this aspect against some reflections (in truth very few!) that enhance this aspect, for example, Jessica Benjamin (1988) , Teresa De Lauretis (1999) and, in Italy, Silvia Vegetti Finzi (1997). For me, the connection between philosophy and psychoanalysis is an important example of that interdisciplinary dimension upon which our own Travelling Concepts project is based, as underlined in many of the position papers.
In more recent years I felt the need to tie together again the scattered threads of my work in this sector of my research, which I tried to do with the self-narrative reconstruction of my research career in the book Il Potere di Unire: Femminile, Desiderio, Cura (2003) which deals with the issues raised in this paper in a wider and more systematic manner.
This research has paradoxically been given a much greater welcome in spheres outside the university (women’s associations, equal opportunities commissions, cultural meeting groups, political debates etc.) than in the university itself, where, in Italy at least, the feminist discourse is still struggling to get a strong foothold and be given the same dignity as other theoretical perspectives. It is not by chance that in the Italian universities there are no teaching posts for Gender Studies! Nor is it a coincidence that in the philosophical sphere in particular feminism has not managed to engage in authoritative dialogue with other perspectives, despite being strongly represented (e.g. in the Diotima group). To give just one example that is close to me, while Liana Borghi holds Gender Studies courses at her university, she seems to recognise her experience outside in the Villa Fiorelle Summer School as more important and effective (3). Although I have not been able to participate in more than one of our group’s meetings, I have found the comparison with other papers very useful; especially where the differences in languages and perspectives forced me to make an effort to comprehend and interact. I think that this reciprocal effort and this ability to fluctuate between different disciplines, while accepting feelings of loss, doubt and temporary disorientation is the very heart of our project; however, I agree with Veronica Vasterling that the concept of interdisciplinarity may need to be viewed from a more problematic perspective.
1. Criticism of the Modern Subject
My reflections are located in a field, by now very vast, which is criticism of the modern subject (4) ; this criticism has also always been a central part of feminist thought, which is directed against the idea of a closed subject, isolated in its presumption of self-sufficiency, separated from all that pertains to the corporeal and emotional sphere (5) . In this connection, Anglo-Saxon philosophers, critics of the paradigm of the modern liberal subject (e.g. Charles Taylor, 1989), have spoken in recent years of ‘disengaged’ or ‘disembedded’ Self. I definitely allied myself with this critical viewpoint. Moreover, criticism of the modern subject is one of the main themes underlying my research. One of the results of this research is that I have come up with the idea of a contaminated subject: a subject that is not closed in its pretension of self-sufficiency, but open, exposed to the Other, as it is passed through, ‘cut’ through I would like to say, to use a term that I take from Roberto Esposito (1998), by a constitutional ‘wound’. Here once more I am referring to the lexicon of Georges Bataille (1973), from whom I draw this concept of a ‘wound’, blessure, which seems to me a very eloquent and fertile concept and which we can further decline as an exposure, projection, or openness of identity’s confines.
By integrating Bataille’s lexicon and female and feminist consideration, I could say that the wound is produced in the very body of the subject, by its own internal difference: by what I propose to call the difference in. Indeed, I think that the concept of difference can be declined in at least two ways: the difference from, which is what we know best, and which we use to contrast the neutral idea of the subject, claiming the right to build an identity ‘in the difference’; and the difference in, which is the dimension inside subjectivity, a sort of discrepancy, of open wound, that cannot be put back together. Therefore, in my opinion the latter is the conditio sine qua non of difference from; as only if we recognise the discrepancy that passes through us can we access recognition of the external difference(s) which live(s) in the plural and complex universe of our experience. It is on this basis that, again using Bataille’s lexicon, I propose the idea of a contaminated subject, exposed to ‘contagion’ with the Other.
Now, in order to give a better definition of the concept of contamination, I first of all think it necessary to immediately distinguish it from that of ‘hybridisation’, which as we all know, belongs to postmodern feminist thought. The idea of a contaminated subject allows me to put myself in a space that de facto criticises the modern subject, that is, the disengaged Self that I spoke of before, but which also allows me to distance myself from some positions within postmodern subjectivity theory. I am referring in particular to the two most radical female thinkers in this direction, Judith Butler (1998) and Donna Haraway (1995), for whom the concept of ‘hybridisation’ is central.
Personally, I am very stimulated by this type of reflection. I consider it a reflection worthy of attention, high level reflection, as it is capable of putting forward new and fruitful answers through an essentially deconstructive approach, which tends to go beyond the dualisms of Western thought, responsible for hierarchies and exclusions. But at the same time I feel that I diverge, where it appears to me that the concept of ‘hybrid/hybridisation’ in fact ends up dissolving the idea of subjectivity, which instead I make the effort to retain, while continuing to review it with a critical and deconstructive eye.
In short, it seems to me that the concept of ‘hybrid’ fails to include what are for me two fundamental components of a possible ‘other’ idea of subjectivity. These two fundamental components are those that, in line with Adriana Cavarero (1997), I would like to define as uniqueness of the Self and Self-Other interaction. In the concept of ‘hybrid’, which in itself contains the idea of flows, passages, divisions and fragmentations, it appears to me in fact that the idea of the originality and uniqueness of the self is lost, meant as the dimension that identifies that particular self, with its unique and irreplaceable history of passion and reason, of joys and suffering, of success and failure.
On this issue I owe much to the tradition of psychoanalysis. That is, psychoanalysis has allowed and still allows me to keep the dimension of a narrative tissue of the Self strongly present: although it is a broken up Self, removed from its ‘Cartesian’ sovereignty, or crossed through by opaqueness, unconscious dimensions, drives and passions. In short, psychoanalysis, as I see it, gives value to the subject’s pathologies, unease and suffering, and in so doing allows precisely the deconstruction and also the reconstruction, as the Self moves away from itself through the gaze of the Other. An operation of reconstruction that, starting from a complex material of fragments, of alternating fullness and emptiness, fleeing and returning, finally gives back the image of that particular Self, unique and unrepeatable, absolutely original and different from all the others.
I am not afraid to claim that my proposal strongly emphasises individuality. Not of the subject, mind, or at least not of the subject understood in its self-referential paradigm, but of a singularity that is nevertheless multiple on the inside, constantly developing and never identified with itself, although it is that particular subjectivity, with that name, with that history, and that relational tissue.
Thus, we come to the other point, what I call Self-Other interaction. I have chosen this term, ‘interaction’, because it allows the Self-Other relationship to be permanently kept open and not to be recomposed in a synthesis where the Other is then effectively sucked into the history of the Self meant as hegemonic conscience (6). This is founded in what I call the difference in, in this discrepancy that permanently disputes the subject from inside in its claims of autonomy, and its claims of absoluteness. Therefore, the difference takes shape as a principle of internal dispute (7), as something that never allows the subject to recompose itself in its presumption and illusion of self-sufficiency.
In second place, as I have already mentioned, the difference in becomes the indispensable source for recognition of the Other’s difference (8). I believe that any theory of difference, meant as difference from, which is not founded on an idea of difference in, internal difference, runs the risk of becoming empty rhetoric. All the discourses on multiculturalism, on pluralism, on recognition, which are today of great topicality in the philosophical political debate, at times irritate me deeply because they risk becoming empty formulae if they are not substantiated by this basic supposition: that is, by the assumption that we are not able to recognise the Other’s difference, therefore we are not able to start off a process of recognition, if we do not depart from the awareness of our own internal difference; that is, if we do not depart from the awareness of that discrepancy which indeed permanently disputes us from the inside, allowing us to see the other. Saying it in a tongue-twisting manner, which I am sure would cause Rosi Braidotti to despair, I could say that only the difference in allows us to recognise the Other because it makes us see and accept the Other in his otherness.
This also means that the Other, the concrete and external Other, takes shape as the living recollection of the internal difference that passes through the subject. The Other is always and nevertheless an incarnated presence, who indeed resists us, we could say with Emmanuel Lévinas (1961), precisely and only as he ‘resists’ us, and therefore he cannot be appropriated or admitted. But, I would like to underline, we are able to see this resistance, to stand up to this resistance, only if we know how to recognise otherness as an internal dimension; only if we put ourselves in a position of ‘hospitality’, Derrida would say (1997), with respect to the difference that is inside us and that prevents us from settling down in the reassuring confines of a static and definitive identity.
2. Contaminated Subject
The second heading that I propose as a way to try to define the contaminated subject is a concept that is a sort of recurring leitmotiv in my research: that is to say the concept of passion. In this context I take the idea of ‘passion’ to be the very dimension, the very place in which that openness is produced, in which that wound is opened, that cut that I spoke of earlier; in short, the place where that desire for contamination and contagion originates, which exposes the subject to loss of the Self, and where loss of the Self does not mean, mind, Selflessness, sacrifice, relinquishment, but an opening of the confines as the essential condition for opening up to the Other, or rather to the desire of the Other. Desiring the Other, or if you prefer passion for the Other, is an expression that allows me to free the idea of otherness and the Self-other relationship from any altruistic rhetoric (9). I would like to say something about the need to deconstruct the concept of ‘passion’ in at least two directions: in fact ‘passion’ means no end of things, it is used in no end of ways. Therefore, we need to start to construct differentiations within the lexicon of the emotional life. On this point we are still strongly conditioned by the dualisms of Western thought. One of these dualisms is precisely that of reason-passion. In reality there are many reasons and there are many passions, and many reasonable passions and many impassioned reasons and the discourse is very complex. One just needs to think of the distinction between ‘passion’, ‘desire’, ‘sentiment’ and ‘emotion’, which we rarely think about. Feminist thought has worked a great deal on the concept of ‘desire’, neglecting many other concerns, with an attitude of remove. Let us consider ‘sentiment’ for a moment: one of the inherent problems in constructing female subjectivity was the female’s association with that particular emotional dimension. Sentiment is something that coincides neither with reason nor with passion; it is something calm, controlled, it is something lasting and manageable. It is what the image of the female as essentially defined by maternal instinct and care is anchored to.
Instead now I would like to stay with the topic of desire (10). My impression is that on the topic of desire there is a strange convergence between the voices of feminism, even those very different from each other. Common to these positions is an emphatic enhancement of desire, which evidently originates and draws legitimacy from the need to subtract female desire from the age-old silence and the persistent removal that it has long been condemned to. But in my opinion this euphoria prevents us grasping the obscure and ambivalent aspects of desire. Desire can in fact be destructive, because, as the psychoanalytic viewpoint again teaches us, it is intrinsically opaque, potentially blind.
From this point of view, not even Foucault’s viewpoint is sufficient. Indeed, Foucault tells us that desires are produced and manipulated by ‘discourses’ (media, politics, economics and today we can add biotechnology, computers and the mass media). But this means leading everything back to an external factor, in a sort of contrast between the power of discourse and the subject. Thus, we end up neglecting the element of seduction – which a philosopher like Baudrillard stressed (1980) - and the complicity of subjects with discursive practices. In other words, ‘discourses’ do not rise up in front of us like an external and abstract coercive power, but we are the ones who are manipulated by discursive practices as we submit to their seductiveness, their ‘siren’s’ charm.
Let us consider briefly the context of technology in this regard. It is precisely the idea of ‘seduction’ that allows us to move away from that false polarisation between damning and exalting technology that is so prevalent in the feminist universe. I want to suggest that today the challenge is not refusing the development of technology nor optimistically greeting it, but shirking its seductions, and the grasp that it has on our deepest and most covert desires, on our myths and fantasies. My theory is that we can interrupt the unlimited spiral of technology only when we break off the unlimited spiral of our desires; we can regain power over technology when we regain power over our desires.
3. Desire and Power
Therefore, it is a matter of reflecting on the connection between desire and power. And so we come to the third concept that I invite you to reflect on: the concept of power. Spinoza defines power as ‘empowerment’, as vis existendi, which finds its origin and nourishment in desire (1677). The power to exist in proportion to the extent that the subject desires, since desire is ‘the very essence of man’ (1677,l.IV,prop. XVIII) ,it is the effort to persevere in his own being. But at the same time, vis existendi is also the ability to recognise the opaqueness of desires, or rather of Desire with a capital D, to take the desire away from its blindness, to understand how it happens first of all. For our purposes here, acquiring power as in empowerment may mean enhancing desire for our own happiness, but also understanding what route desire follows and how it happens, putting it to a hermeneutic process to free it from its opaqueness and therefore its boundlessness. This requires indulgently recognising the ambivalences, the pathologies, the chiaroscuro results of desire so we can once again direct it, into acting as a factor that empowers subjectivity, which can regain its ability to actively and not passively face its own emotional life.
Empowerment, meant neither as power-domination nor only as ‘autonomy’ in the liberal and modern sense, but as the development of positive energies, like the ‘flourishing’ of the Self, we could say with Martha Nussbaum (2001), takes shape where we manage to critically face the omnipotence of desire.
Now, what I would like to bring to your attention is that the need for this critical attitude also concerns women. From the moment when they acquire citizenship, from the moment when they make themselves subjects both in the private and the public spheres, women too are exposed to the boundlessness and omnipotence of desire. Thus, the acquisition of power becomes what allows us to oppose, to ‘resist’, Foucault would say, the power of discourses; which today in particular means opposing, especially for women, technological power meant as power over life, as bio-power (11).
Bio-power is in fact currently one of the most troubling forms of the power of discourses, as it is exercised on bodies and does it in a pervasive, global, widespread way, colonising the very sphere of desire, obtaining complicity through persuasive and invisible techniques of seduction. Women, as subjects capable of generating, giving life (at least until the overwhelming power of technology dispossesses them of this!), are the first subjects affected by bio-power, the first potential victims of its seductive force, the first possible accomplices of its vocation towards boundlessness. So, we could say, complicity with bio-power breaks when it no longer manages to have a grip on women’s desires, when women once again take on an active and conscious relationship towards their emotional life, extracting it from any claim of sacredness; therefore, when they place their power against the seductive and expropriating force of the power of (bio) technological discourse, as suggested above.
4. Person of the Other
But when is it that the omnipotence of desire will break? What is it that challenges the boundlessness of desire? This is where the person of the Other forcefully comes into the picture.
Once again Spinoza gives us a precious indication, when he claims that happiness and virtue, Self-fulfilment and attention to the Other are indivisable (1677). Upsetting the topos of modern moral philosophy, Spinoza even says that virtue is not the source of happiness, but that happiness is the source of virtue: where ‘virtue’ indicates the ability to take the Other into account. This means that empowerment is that type of power that combines these two aspects; it is a power that may be formed from the need to satisfy our own desire for happiness, to voice our own aspirations, but which does so by taking into account the Other’s desires.
If we are to develop this indication, we could say that it is the presence of the Other, the resistance of the Other that calls us to pay attention, to respect and care, which can break off the spiral of the boundlessness of desire. Therefore, it is not a matter of placing a limit, in terms of quantity, to our desires, because the limit can only be an eminently qualitative concept, which is triggered not by duty-like forms of self-contentment or sticking to moral rules, but by our very desire to pay attention to the Other, especially to the Other as s/he is ‘significant’ and a concrete presence throughout our biography.
I would like to propose that the limit is given by the passion for the Other, by the recognition of the Other as an unavoidable dimension, constituting our identity and our own chances of happiness. In other words, the limit – and here I come to the last headword that I want to bring to your attention – is given by the will to take care of the Other.
There has of course been a longstanding debate on ‘care’, originating with Carol Gilligan’s seminal text, In a different Voice, perhaps an overestimated book, but one that obviously touched a nerve (1987) (12).
What I propose is to take the concept of care away from the ‘maternalistic’ point of view, represented by Gilligan. I would like to release the concept of care from that inevitably altruistic and selfless meaning that it ends up taking on if it remains linked to the maternal dimension. Instead, I would like to propose a meaning of care that is intimately triggered by my notion of contaminated subject and which therefore allows me to finish by linking back up with the initial premises of this paper. From my perspective, care is not to be understood as something that derives from the attitude of putting the other first, typical of maternal psychology, but as the answer to a need for the Self: for a Self exposed to contamination.
In other words, care is the answer for a subject conscious of its own wound (to take up Bataille’s lexicon once again), its own openness, its own vulnerability and dependence. In this connection, I like the word ‘neediness’ a lot, a term that I have taken from Martha Nussbaum (2001) .The wounded subject is a needy subject conscious of its neediness; and it is capable of care only in this sense, that is, only starting from the fact that it recognises it is in need of care. It is here that the circuit of reciprocity starts up, which allows us to overcome every dualism between egoism-altruism, desire-care, Self-Other, prefiguring a subject capable of combining traditionally opposite aspects.
To conclude, it seems to me that this perspective can produce at least three fundamental consequences: the first is to consider the maternal instinct not as the ‘foundation’ of the tendency towards care, but as one and only one of its possible epiphanies, freeing women from any a priori identification with an age-old role. The second is that of extending the possibility of care also to male subjects, where they are willing to recognise their neediness and dependence. Last, but not least, the third is that of opening the confines of care, traditionally relegated, due to its identification with the maternal instinct, to the intimate and private sphere, and to conceive it instead as a practice also permeating the public and political spheres, which, as appears dramatically evident, seem to have a great need for attention, bonding, and reciprocity .
(1) Many of the position papers underline the need, not only to rediscuss the concept of ‘Gender’, but also to distinguish between Gender Studies and feminist theory, which do not always converge. See e.g. Eniko Demény, Teresa Joaquim and Païvi Korvajärvi’s papers.
(2) I found some similarities between my concept of the ‘contaminated subject’ and the concept of the ‘misplaced subject’ proposed by Teresa Joaquim in her position paper.
(3) See Liana Borghi’s position paper for further discussion of the Villa Fiorelle Summer School.
(4) For a discussion of the idea of ‘critical thinking’, see the papers of Veronica Vasterling, Dasa Duhacek, and Clare Hemmings, whose concern is with building a ‘critical pedagogy’.
(5) I speak about ‘Subject’ and not about ‘Identity’, a theme which is treated in others papers in relation with the problem of cultural, ethnic, religious or racial identity. See, in particular the papers of Joan Anim-Addo, Josefina Bueno Alonso, Melita Richter and Giovanna Covi.
This choice is also reflected in my notion of the ‘Other’, which I use in a purely ontological sense and which I could also substitute with ‘otherness’; while where the sociological concept of ‘identity’ prevails, the ‘Other’ is more a description of the polarity that is considered ‘inferior’ from a Eurocentric point of view, as emerges very clearly from the paper by Giovanna Covi.
(6) Here there is an affinity with the concept of ‘intersubjectivity’ proposed by Eva Skaerbaek, as a means of going beyond the dualisms in Western thought, such as the subject/object dualism.
(7) I am again drawing from French tradition here, in particular from Maurice Blanchot, who uses this beautiful expression ‘the principle of internal dispute’ in his small but intense text on community, The Unavowable Community (1984).
(8) For consideration of the topic of recognition,cf. Marina Calloni, Melita Richter and Eva Skaerbaek.
(9) In this connection, I would like to give just one example, which for me is particularly significant. In working on the concept of the ‘gift’ (Pulcini 2001) which is one of the most overdone within this type of rhetoric, I tried to do precisely this: I took the gift not to be an act that triggers a charitable and altruistic attitude, dictated precisely by Selflessness and a sacrificial vocation, but from a drive that comes about from the passion for the Other; and which therefore as such deeply respects our subjectivity and its most authentic demands, despite opening it to relationality and reciprocity.
(10) On this point, I would like to immediately say that I found myself in tune, at least at the beginning, with the reflections of Teresa de Lauretis (1999), while I feel somewhat out of tune with the positions characterised by what I would define a euphoric vision of desire - see Lia Cigarini (1995), Ida Dominianni (1995) and Rosi Braidotti (1995).
(11) Few of the position papers deal directly with the topic of power, but see Giovanna Covi on the relationship between race and gender, and Silvia Caporale Bizzini, who explicitly refers to the ‘power of discourses’ in the Foucauldian sense. In addition, various papers reflect on the possibility of a different idea of ‘knowledge’ - see Marina Calloni, Eva Skaerbaek and Iris Van der Tuin -.
(12) On the relationship between recognition and care in the concrete context of care work, see Eva Skaerbaek’s paper.
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