Malabou, Catherine. Changing Difference, Trans. Carolyn Shread (Cambridge: Polity, 2011)

  • cc icon
  • Originally published in French in 2009, Catherine Malabou’s Changing Difference revisits the heated feminist debates on gender, dentity, and essentialism. In order to challenge both essentialist feminism that justifies sexual difference and anti-essentialist feminism that rejects any inherent identity of women, Malabou claims that each woman does have an essence given “the structural impossibility she experiences of not being violated, in herself and outside, everywhere” (140). That in reality women are constantly violated in their being, for Malabou, indicates the fact that they are always exposed to the violence of being denied their essence. This ordinary condition of violence, she asserts, exists not only in practical reality as seen in a number of reported and unreported cases of sexual abuse and domestic violence, but also in contemporary antiessentialist philosophical and critical theories on gender. Her point is that to deny any possibility of the ontological essence of women is to preclude them from recognizing the possibility of a shared and resistant essence of women, who can persist in being despite or because of the very violence they cannot but face in academic discourses and daily lives.

    It is notable that Malabou’s critique of anti-essentialism in feminism is aimed at “explor[ing] a new resistance by women to the constant violence — theoretical and political — to which she is subjected all over the world every day” (2). Here, she insists that contemporary feminism be a new intellectual practice and social force to assist women to make opposition to the abusive and unjust exercise of power. That is to say, she never considers traditional feminism predicated on essentialism that approves the dualism of masculine and feminine an alternative to anti-essentialist feminism. Rather, she seeks to redefine not only feminism but also to radically revise our understanding of the existing ontology of the other. She maintains that past feminism built on the idea of sexual difference and post-feminism that problematizes the binary divide have collectively otherized the being of the feminine by denying any substantial entity of women and therefore made it impossible to fight against their conditions of oppression. Thus, her philosophical and practical intervention into the “theoretical and political” question regarding feminine essence is to shed light on the ontological substance of women as the concrete, social other, not the other in the abstract.

    For Malabou, there are certain ontological properties or sources common to all women in terms of their shared—not necessarily homogeneous—biological features as women and experience of suffering caused by the state of gender oppression, which allow them to form a unified group that can act together for a new feminist politics. In this sense, assigning women an essence is helping them enact a new form of change and resistance possible in their particular mode of being. It is in the same regard that her first essay in Changing Difference, which reconsiders “the meaning of the feminine” (also, the title of the essay), criticizes such deconstructionists as Jacques Derrida, Immanuel Levinas, Luce Irigaray, and Judith Butler for divorcing femininity, or the essence of the feminine, from women in their deconstructive ethical or psychosomatic formulation of the feminine as the other open to difference and hospitable to all. In other words, Malabou’s reconstruction of the ontological being of the feminine distinguishes and distances her from other deconstructionists who collectively praise the ethical openness and hospitality of the other, as well as the free play of the undecidable being.

    For Derrida, in Malabou’s critical view, the feminine’s “‘ontological’ meaning […] ensures that the feminine is not restricted to woman” (21) so as to make it serve the anti-essentialist ontology of the other. For Levinas, Irigaray, and Butler, Malabou also criticizes, there is a common underlying intent to tie the feminine back to biological women and women’s sexuality, only to make it impossible to conceive the ontological common ground of women (27-29). Hence, the inevitable “dead end” of contemporary feminism: “[t]o speak of the ‘feminine’ would thus lead, in one way or another, to a reinforcement of traditional divisions and a reduction in the breadth of difference” (32). Malabou sees such a dead end as theoretical reduction that disregards the reality that women are “dominated sexually, symbolically, socially, economically, and culturally” (92). Inattention to the actual condition of power dynamics and social domination is also nothing but theoretical, or “anti-essentialist,” violence done to women, who, in fact, “can play into the hands of ordinary violence against women in both the domestic and social realm” (96). It is her strong point that gender (and queer) studies have deprived women of their being. By hollowing out the ontologically suffering essence of women, she argues, feminism has made abortive attempts to liberate them. To solve this problem, she calls for a new understanding of women as possessing a flexible, reshapeable, and resistant—“plastic” in Malabou’s terminology— essence.

    The second and third essays, “Grammatology and plasticity” and “The phoenix, the spider and the salamander,” examine the biology and ontology of the feminine in view of Malabou’s concept of plasticity, which she puts forward as an alternative to existing philosophical, especially deconstructionist, views of women. As something plastic is malleable and thus susceptible to transformations of form, femininity as plasticity allows women to become more than they are defined and circumscribed. Yet plastic does not mean shapeless; rather, it is a fluid state of being. Such constant fluidity enables women to “become passing, metabolic points of identity” (135). More important, women in process of change can also have the formative power to mould and transform other things. Thereby, they can “transform their impossibility of being into a specific power” (111). Here, Malabou directs attention to the question regarding how the feminist struggle can overcome the limits of both essentialism and antiessentialism.

    In the final piece, “Woman’s possibility, philosophy’s impossibility,” she investigates the interlocking question of sex and gender. She first addresses the difficulty of being a female philosopher in order to identify the violating forces and repressions awaiting women in philosophical thinking and writing. What she demonstrates is the fact that philosophy is no neutral and transparent discourse of truth. However, she does not align herself with other contemporary feminist critics and theorists who have simply chastised the explicit and latent sexism in philosophy. What she mainly focuses on is to show how to restore the long-unsought ontological significance of women by delving into a set of properties and sources held in common by women. To recognize such ontological commonalities, she believes, clears the way for new feminist philosophy and politics leading to collective action based on the common ontological concerns of women.

    In Changing Difference, Malabou’s sentences are obliquely suggestive and loosely interwoven. She hardly elaborates on her core ideas at length. Nor does she provide a clear answer to some theoretical and practical questions: “What are the differences or contradictions between multiplicity and plasticity?”; “How can women under the condition of violence derive resistant powers to change their reality?”; and “What do women of plasticity do to unite together for the same political cause?” More frustrating is her tendency to confuse “being” with “living.” When she calls to question what the life of a woman philosopher is as well as what the being of women is, she makes no distinction between how to exist and how to live. In addition, throughout her pieces, she tends to think of violence as a socially given ontological modality without taking into consideration its epistemological and empirical aspects and effects. As violence is always the issue of violation, the question of violence becomes the question of law and order of social system and culture. Yet Malabou makes little reference to the long feminist debates on social structure, reform, and revolution, though she underscores her radical intervention concerning philosophy and politics.

    Even so, Changing Difference shows how she redirects our attention to the question of (anti-)essentialism in feminism. Indeed, to change difference, if not to make a difference, is the fulfilled purpose of her first feminist book.