Feminism, Psychoanalysis and Identity Politics: An Interview with Jane Flax
Grant, Megan, Rubens, Ananda, Melbourne Journal of Politics
MJP: Where did you do your undergraduate study and your dissertation:?
Jane Flax: I did my undergraduate study at Berkeley, I graduated in 1969. Then I went to Yale and did my graduate work. I got my PhD in 1974 Both degrees were in political science.
MJP: Was your early research in mainstream political science?
Jane Flax: No, I always did political theory, that was my great love. When I lived at Berkeley I was very fortunate because there were wonderful political theorists who were there at the time. When I was at Yale, I also did political theory and philosophy. My interests have always tended more towards the philosophic and I actually wrote my dissertation on the relationship between politics and knowledge. And that was before I'd even read Foucault. I've had a pretty constant set of interests, I would say, since I was in graduate school.
MJP: Don't you wish you had have got in before Foucault; "I was before Foucault"?
Jane Flax: Foucault was way ahead of me, I'm afraid. The only book of his I had read at the time was The Archeology of Knowledge. It wasn't until later, probably until 1982 or 1983, that I really started reading him seriously. I was certainly interested in psychoanalysis early on because I did my dissertation on the critical theorists - Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse - so that I got into psychoanalysis because I wanted to try to understand what they were doing. You can't really do that unless you know a lot about psychoanalysis. So that was sort of my route into studying Freud.
MJP: The issues that you have written about appear to be very much a continuation of that ...
Jane Flax: Yes, it is really. I think even in undergraduate school I was very interested in philosophies of knowledge. When I was in graduate school I continued to be interested in philosophies of knowledge and I was always interested in relationships of power, too. When I was in graduate school the women's movement started up again and that was a very strong reason for pursuing that. So I got interested in gender, although I didn't really write about that in my dissertation.
After I got my dissertation I started writing about gender issues. So my interests in knowledge and subjectivity and power have been really long-standing issues. I just seem to explore them in a variety of ways, but they were certainly the three central issues that I worked with.
MJP: There is also a major concern in your work with the difficulty of finding perspectives for theory and practice. This is noticeable particularly in relation to feminism ...
Jane Flax: Yes, yes. This is one of the reasons that I have a lot of empathy for Foucault. I think that it's very easy to become a prisoner of a certain kind of theory, and then it actually blocks you from thinking. And you become so invested in the theory that the theory comes up like a blender where everything gets processed through, no matter what. I have a very restless mind in that way. What I usually do is try to get very much inside a theory and work with it in a very empathic way. But then I begin to see its intrinsic difficulty and I need some other way to think, and so I take up some other theory. I look at theories more as tools, as ways of helping me to formulate questions or think about issues, not as things in themselves that you want to be committed to.
MJP: How do you situate yourself in relation to the current conflict in feminist theory with the issue of "identity politics"? Do have a need to situate yourself within this debate?
Jane Flax: Yes. I've written a lot about this issue and I have a lot of trouble with identity politics for a number of reasons. One is, of course, I think identity is so complicated and multiply determined that I think that it's hard to figure out any kind of straightforward identity to begin with. I think that it's a great mistake to think that having some sort of solid identity gives you any kind of stable place to operate from. …