Deconstruction, Feminism, and Law: Cornell and MacKinnon on Female Subjectivity and Resistance

By Clark, M. J. | Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Deconstruction, Feminism, and Law: Cornell and MacKinnon on Female Subjectivity and Resistance


Clark, M. J., Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy


In examining familiar things we come to such unfamiliar conclusions that our very language is twisted and bent even as it guides us. Writing "under erasure" is the mark of this contortion. (1)

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors metonymies, anthropomorphisms ... truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions coins which having lost their stamp, are now regarded as metal and no longer as coins. (2)

Yet a gaze averted from the beaten track, a hatred of brutality, a search for fresh concepts not yet encompassed by the general pattern, is the last hope for thought. In an intellectual hierarchy which constantly makeseveryone answerable, unanswerability alone can call the hierarchy directly by its name. (3)

Sexual difference is one of the major philosophical issues of ... our age. According to Heidegger, each age has one issue to think through, and one only. Sexual difference is probably the issue in our time which could be our "salvation" if we thought it through. (4)

I. INTRODUCTION: POSTRUCTURALISM AND LAW

In 1967, Jacques Derrida published three philosophical works that altered the critical and philosophical landscape of the late twentieth century. Those works--Of Grammatology, Speech and Phenomena, and Writing and Difference--attempted to rethink the very fabric of thinking itself, and aimed at displacing a mode of reasoning that Derrida argued intrinsically required dominance as a condition of its operation. (5) In brief, Derrida argued that Western philosophy, and by inference Western modes of rationality and being, were based on a desire to suppress difference in the name of identity. Reason, for Derrida, was a form of desire, and was intimately linked with perpetual violence. (6)

Derrida's philosophical investigations undermined the idea of reason as a neutral mechanism which could lead to universalizable and "true" conclusions. Indeed, Derrida showed that Western thought was based upon a logical hierarchy. Rather than discovering that our supposedly value-free conceptual terms could be applied without bias, Derrida showed that bias was part of their very structure. (7) He spent much of his career illustrating the ways in which a series of conceptual terms repeated themselves in Western thought and lived experience, delimiting our very capacity to think in novel ways. (8) For Derrida, concepts are things, as tactile in their effect as earth and water, as restrictive as chains, and yet as invisible as ether. (9) His project makes the invisible structures of thought, inquiry, and self-identity visible, showing us how what we often hold to be a condition of freedom in fact turns out to be a yoke of enslavement. (10)

This insight is at the foundation of postmodern philosophy, a critical strategy (not a system or method) aimed at unsettling all modes of transcendental, fixed, or essentialist thought. It attacks the hegemonic foundationalism that lies at the base of Western thought. This strategy, also called deconstruction, is thus a kind of philosophical, critical and social practice aimed at rethinking the world. For many, this is deeply threatening. But, as a means of exposing the structurally embedded power relations that inhere in the deepest tissue of our daily lives, deconstruction is also a method of reinventing the world. To some, it is thus deeply utopian. (11) Moreover, deconstruction rethinks the very foundations of thought, not merely its various "superstructural" (surface) manifestations. It is this deep radicalism that has attracted many feminist theorists, who saw in the universalist, egalitarian, and entirely noble promises of modern liberal-democratic thought a troubling distortion of the experience of being a woman. (12)

Among contemporary legal philosophers, no one has more thoughtfully engaged in the ongoing discussion surrounding these issues than Drucilla Cornell. She has attempted to bring together postmodernism and legal feminism in an effort to radically re-imagine what it is to be a woman. …

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