This article will consider a split within current feminist theory which appears to require some declaration of loyalties.footnote1 The split I have in mind is not altogether easy to describe in terms of the standard academic classification of feminist positions that prevailed in the 1970s and early 1980s—the schema that gave us ‘liberal’, ‘socialist’ and ‘radical’ feminism, with the ‘radical’ tendency marked out by a view of men—rather than, say, capitalism—as women’s ‘main enemy’, and by militancy over such issues as sexual abuse and domestic exploitation. This schema seems to have been eclipsed over the last ten years or so—in tandem, as it happens, with the increasing unacceptability of any positive reference to ‘socialism’ in British political discussion—by a different one which offers feminists a choice between just two basic self-images. Nowadays we can be, as before, ‘liberals’, now sometimes designated ‘liberal-humanists’; or we can be ‘radical’ in an updated sense, defined not in terms of any particular form of activism but by the questioning of certain untenable theoretical assumptions—and so of the authoritarian power structures which these assumptions are held to sustain.

As suggested by the words ‘untenable’ and ‘authoritarian’, this newer, binary classification is less purely expository and more polemical than the old. In principle, I have no problem with that; nor do I necessarily wish to defend the kind of ‘liberal-humanist’ position that constitutes the object of criticism within the new scheme. I do however find it difficult to believe that a feminism which flatly refused to recognize any philosophical kinship with the ‘humanist’ tradition could make adequate sense of itself as a political movement, and the sources of this difficulty are what I shall be exploring here. My aim will be to contribute to what seems to be emerging as a long-term project for feminist enquiry, namely to find out how far it may be possible to emancipate ourselves from a certain model of ‘the subject’ which some feminists regard as a millstone around the necks of others. I will pursue this aim by, first, assembling some evidence about how an anti- (or, putatively, post-) humanist feminism would differ from its humanist counterpart; and second, by staging an encounter between anti-humanist theory (thus reconstructed) and the specific political effort summed up in the well-known feminist slogan, ‘No means no’.

I realize that any such effort of reconstruction may invite the objection voiced by one of the most rigorous contemporary critics of ‘humanist’ feminism, Judith Butler, against the ‘violent reduction’ of a textual field to the compass of whatever fragment the commentator may have bothered to read.footnote2 I conjecture at any rate that Butler herself, whose views I shall consider in this paper, would no more wish to be named as a representative ‘anti-humanist’ than to ‘champion a position that goes under the name of anti-foundationalism’. footnote3 However, I persist in the hope that to think in some degree synthetically about what one reads (in its inevitable contingency as a sample of anything), and consequently—where conditions seem favourable—to let a theoretical ‘part’ stand for an ‘artificially constructed whole’,footnote4 is not automatically to incur the charge of intellectual dishonesty. If it were to be claimed that this procedure quite generally enacts a ‘ruse of power’,footnote5 then I would reply that to pass from a state of ignorance about, or disorientation within, a textual field to one of relative comprehension is indeed to find a remedy for a certain condition of powerlessness, but that the desire to achieve this is nothing to be ashamed of, nor, therefore, to conceal—though one can certainly minister to it in a more or less scrupulous manner. (I suppose that to promote the desire and the scruples simultaneously is, in effect, just what is demanded of academic teachers of the ‘humanities’.) In the present discussion, then, I will try to avoid the injustice of using labels in order to magic away the specificity of particular texts or to suggest that they do not need to be read, but I will not forbid myself the kind of synthetic activity that consists in registering resemblances, or allowing one thing (in this case, one textual phenomenon) to recall another—a resource without which, after all, little meaning (or pleasure, or humour. . .) could be found in any department of social existence.

What I will call ‘anti-humanist’ considerations centre on the constructed nature of the self, or ‘subject’ (of thought and action). The origins of this idea can be located in the eighteenth century with Vico, Herder, and other historicist or ‘Romantic’ thinkers.footnote6 These thinkers opposed the empiricist model of language as an instrument for the communication of pre-existing mental contents (such as, ‘ideas’), maintaining instead that, at any rate beyond a certain level of complexity, the content of our experience depends on the linguistic—and other culturally specific—forms available to express it.footnote7 Such a view is not by definition ‘anti-humanist’, but it acquires this character when the idea of the constitutive relation of language to thought is taken to imply that—contrary to surface grammar and to our unreflective self-understanding—we ourselves are not ‘really’ the originators of our words and actions, or that it is not we who speak but language that speaks through us. Among the classic statements of this thought are those of Barthes in ‘The Death of the Author’, ‘For [Mallarmé], for us too, it is language which speaks, not the author’;footnote8 or Derrida in ‘Signature Event Context’, ‘We are witnessing a more and more powerful historical unfolding of a general writing of which the system of speech, consciousness, meaning, presence, truth, etc., would only be an effect, to be analyzed as such’.footnote9

During the past century the constructed nature of the subject has been affirmed in a somewhat different sense by psychoanalytic theory. The post-1960s period has been marked in particular by the growing influence of Lacan, a writer at one time ‘rejected for criticizing standard theories of the ego, and for bringing the social into the individual via language’.footnote10 Whereas the dominant theme in psychoanalytic theory and practice since Freud, especially in the us, had been that of amelioration—strengthening the ego against neurotic disturbance, helping the patient adjust to his or her social reality—Lacan and those influenced by him have insisted on the pessimistic side of Freudian theory and on the centrality of the unconscious; their account of subjectivity converges with that of linguistic structuralism (or post-structuralism) in that they, too, look beyond the phenomenon of intentional control over speech and behaviour to something that speaks through the individual language-user, and are thus led to question common-sense notions of personality and voluntary agency.

‘Humanism’ itself is, of course, a technical term with deep roots in the history of philosophy, and one which I have so far done little to explain. Rather than proceed any further in a historical vein, however, I want to turn now to some recent accounts of what it is that theoretical anti-humanists are calling into question, and then to consider how the relevant conceptual issues impinge on feminist theory and politics.

Kate Soper introduces the idea of humanism in the context of debates within Marxist philosophy about historical agency. She says that humanism ‘appeals (positively) to the notion of a core humanity or common essential features in terms of which human beings can be defined and understood. . .[It] takes history to be a product of human thought and action, and thus claims that the categories of “consciousness”, “agency”, “choice”, “responsibility”, “moral value”, etc. are indispensable to its understanding.’ For anti-humanism, by contrast, all such notions are ‘ideological’: ‘“men” do not make history, nor find their “truth” or “purpose” in it; history is a process without a subject.’footnote11