Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 7, No. 2, 1994
Screening Cultural Studies
Edited by Tom O'Regan & Toby Miller

Nietzsche and feminism

Claire Colebrook

Review of Paul Patton ed., Nietzsche, Feminism and Political Theory, Sydney: Allen and Unwin 1993. pp.247. ISBN 1863734457 (pbk), $24.95.

Writing on the philosophical impoverishment of the English, Nietzsche saw George Eliot as the epitome of an ossified humanism which, in its elevation of morality, had failed to truly accept the death of God:

G. Eliot: They got rid of the Christian God, and now feel obliged to cling all the more firmly to Christian moral morality: That is English consistency, let us not blame it on little blue-stockings a la Eliot.

By attacking Eliot in this regard Nietzsche took as his target many of the values which contemporary feminists have sought to challenge - in particular, the idea of natural or "given" moral precepts. What remains problematic in any feminist appropriation of Nietzsche, however, is that (as in this attack) Nietzsche's salutary arguments are associated with an ostensible denigration of women. Using the master's tools to destroy the master's house is one thing; employing those same tools to correct and build the alternative terrain is quite another. To a greater or lesser extent all of the essays in Nietzsche, Feminism and Political Theory affirm that Nietzsche's philosophical insights are valuable enough either to mitigate or override his particular and notorious comments on women.

Some essays, while finally critical of Nietzsche's misogynist leanings, still affirm that a careful reading of Nietzsche will itself reveal the gender limitations of his position. Rosalyn Diprose, for example, argues that Nietzsche's theory of the individual as a self-distancing subject exposes the dependence of male subjectivity on a positing of woman as a static "other" - although Nietzsche's texts themselves cannot explicitly acknowledge such a debt. Again focussing on the question of the other, Keith Ansell-Pearson similarly argues that Nietzsche's work can be 'of use to a noble and courageous feminist politics of difference' (31), although Ansell-Pearson goes on to criticise Derrida's valorisation of Nietzsche in which freedom is conceived as intellectual "play" rather than a political/material practice. Nietzsche, according to Ansell-Pearson, should be read as a political theorist rather than as a metaphysician of styles. In clear disagreement with this essay (and perhaps the spirit of the volume as a whole) is the final contribution by Ted Sadler who rejects the reading of Nietzsche as a 'perspectivalist' (a reading asserted in this volume by Daniel W. Conway). Against the postmodern reading of Nietzsche as a radical pluralist who asserts the situatedness of all perspectives, Sadler argues that Nietzsche asserts the philosophical priority of truth over and against any political theory. According to Sadler, Nietzsche asserts the distance between philosophy and politics along with the superiority of the former.

It is this interest in the relationship between philosophical rigour and political interest which informs the bravest essay in this volume, Marion Tapper's "Ressentiment and Power". Following recent critiques of the tyranny of "political correctness" by writers such as Jane Gallop and Robert Hughes, Tapper uses Nietzsche's theory of ressentiment to criticise certain contemporary feminist practices, in particular those procedures of universities or the academy. Drawing also on Foucault's theory of power, Tapper argues that feminism has shifted from being a movement of political critique to adopting a position of power whereby it marks out for itself a position of innocence and epistemological purity (a "purity" which, in the theory of ressentiment, can only be claimed by the "weak" or dominated). From this position of ressentiment, feminism acts in order to police, delimit and control the boundaries of what is sayable. Consequently, all questions within philosophy and all questions of justice are subject to a form of "surveillance" in which the political interests of feminism produce 'a kind of intellectual authoritarianism, or at least an excessive privileging of some interests' (139). While all the essays in this volume demonstrate the value of an at least qualified reading of Nietzsche, Tapper employs Nietzsche for a critical reflection on the structure of feminist politics itself. By doing so Tapper reveals the importance of reconsidering any political goals from within a philosophically and historically critical position. Whether or not one agrees with Tapper that feminism is beginning to appropriate and intensify the structures of power to which it was originally opposed, the methodological impulse of her reading is certainly laudable. Feminist considerations of philosophy and political theory can surely only benefit from self-criticism alongside the more traditional uses of theory for critique and the construction of alternative goals.

The twelve essays in this volume explore the many possibilities of reading Nietzsche against himself, against Derrida, against Rousseau, against postmodernism, against the enlightenment, alongside Marx and against contemporary feminism itself. In an appropriately Nietzschean fashion, perhaps, one gets the feeling from this collection that there is no Nietzsche, only interpretations of Nietzsche.

New: 2 December, 1995 | Now: 24 March, 2015