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Symposium on Linda Zerilli’s Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom Linda M. G. Zerilli. 2005. Feminism
Symposium on Linda Zerilli’s Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom Linda M. G. Zerilli. 2005. Feminism

Symposium on Linda Zerilli’s Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom

Linda M. G. Zerilli. 2005. Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Linda Zerilli’s Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom seeks to restore feminism’s “lost treasure”: the foundational and radical claim to political freedom. Zerilli proceeds from a vision of political actors that allows for the shaping power of their individual and collective imagination. People, she argues, can create forms or figures that are not already present in sensible experience or existing conceptual languages. They can interrupt or alter the system of representation, in judgment and debate, and as feminists, they can do so in the creative and conflictual heat of world-building. Zerilli explores the implications of this shift of vision through generous readings of other thinkers and political activists, including Hannah Arendt, Monique Wittig, Judith Butler, and the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, as well as an address to the contemporary feminist movement. Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom is a work of political theory, written primarily with an audience of fellow theorists and academic feminists in mind. Yet, the book should be of great interest to sociologists. Zerilli is responding to two problems, or characteristic reductions, that have also troubled our discipline: the persistent assumption that political identity and action follow from and can be read off of demographic characteristics, and the rendering of the political as the mere realization of social determinants or the instantiation of state institutions. Sociologists are often inclined, by disciplinary reflex, toward enumerating pre- and nonpolitical causes that they then take to explain political actions or outcomes. When carried to the extreme, this tendency eradicates the place of politics itself. Zerilli’s is one text that can help us develop better ways to think about politics as practices of world-building that are not exhaustively determined in advance. We should welcome the potential applications to social science and history as well as to political theory and politics itself. That does not mean, of course, that sociologists do not have extensions, criticisms, and alternatives to offer. This symposium is an expanded version of an Author Meets Critics panel organized by Ann Shola Orloff for an annual conference of the Amer- ican Sociological Association. In it, three sociologists—Myra Marx Ferree, Andreas Glaeser, and George Steinmetz—summarize, assess, and react to Zerilli’s text, and their very different responses are followed by the author’s rejoinder. Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom is many things, including a startling break with both socially determined notions of gender politics and the more recent tradition of feminist iden- tity politics, but we foreground it here as a productive challenge to—and dialogue with—sociological theory.

The Editors

Sociological Theory 27:1 March 2009


American Sociological Association. 1430 K Street NW, Washington, DC 20005



Feminist Practice Meets Feminist Theory


University of Wisconsin–Madison

It is always welcome to have a smart, committed feminist engage seriously with big questions of social and political theory, all the more so when her work takes the variety of writings considered “radical feminist theory” seriously enough to make them a central part of her project without simultaneously limiting herself only to those works. Zerilli’s Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom puts thinkers as different from one another as Hannah Arendt and the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, Emmanuel Kant and Monique Wittig into the same paragraphs, if not the same sentences. Moreover, her argument also offers a Eurocentric impulse to push American feminists past the stale equality–difference debate and the anxiety about collective action by “women” that seems to accompany it here. As a person who works on European feminism, I especially appreciate this attention to feminist writings about collective action that have not received the attention in the United States that they merit. Finally, Zerilli deserves a third round of applause for taking

the rhetorical work of claims-making as the serious political action that I also think it is. Rather than taking political arguments as merely “theory,” she considers them as efficacious in their own terms, as means of making political subjects and actions “real-izable” by opening up new spaces in which struggles can and do occur. To meaningfully grant her those three kudos, this essay outlines the sense of her argument for those who have not yet read the book, as well as evaluates some of her claims. To do so, I take up each of these three praiseworthy contributions in more detail. I then turn to ask a few questions about the limits of her arguments, particularly as they might apply to creating the actual spaces for action that she expects political claims to do. The first thing to note about the work of feminist theoretical reflection that Zerilli offers is the scope of the previous work that she draws into her frame of reference. What Zerilli actually means by the “abyss of freedom” is the radical uncertainty about the outcomes of their actions that challenges all actors who seek to “make a difference” in the world. But a second “abyss” addressed by Zerilli is the gulf usually seen between the philosophical concerns and approaches with which she deals. On the one side, she anchors herself in two of the classic authors of nonfeminist political philosophy, Emmanuel Kant and Hannah Arendt. On the other side, she builds directly upon two classics of contemporary European feminist theory—Monique

Wittig’s Les Guerilli ´ eres `

(1969/1985) and the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective’s

manifesto (1987). This latter book was actually translated into English under the title of Sexual Difference (1990), but as Zerilli points out, would more properly have been called “What’s Wrong with Rights.” Stretching herself across the vast gulf between the classic thinkers on politics and second-wave feminists who attempt to theorize from their political practices, Zerilli attempts to provide a bridge strong enough to support liberatory feminist political claims. To construct such a structure

Address correspondence to: Myra Marx Ferree, 17 Sauk Creek Circle, Madison WI 53717. Tel.:

608-263-5204; Fax: 608-265-9541; E-mail:



across the chasm of theory created by the different political concerns of each of the authors she examines, Zerilli spins a strong but flexible web of argument. Her technique is to pull out a number of discrete threads from each source and gradually weave them into a single, more or less smooth fabric. This makes it sometimes hard to see the jarringly different tones and textures of each of her four central sources. Certainly, the central arguments the authors advance explicitly in each of these texts are dramatically different. And it far exceeds my capacities as a critic to unweave the fabric of the argument, examine the various threads, and evaluate whether the uses to which they are put are sufficiently consistent with their original contexts to be considered philosophically legitimate. Moreover, for sociological theory, I presume that the interest that this book holds lies less in the detailed texture of the threads than in the pattern of the political argument that results. Although focusing next on this pattern itself, I would do Zerilli a disservice if I did not first acknowledge the remarkable achievement she has created by imaginatively bridging this gulf of thought with her skillful weave of ideas. The common pattern that she weaves across this theoretical chasm uses as its warp threads the claim that most feminist theories have become too “subject centered” in trying to place identity rather than action at their core. Basing her argument on Arendt’s notion of politics as a struggle among persons who choose the aims that they represent, she challenges both subjective and objective notions of identity as a ground for politics. She asserts that neither how one subjectively experiences or does one’s gender oneself nor the social category of identity or oppression in which one is seen by others as appropriately placed will ever adequately define a political actor, whether individual or collective, because both operate out of a present experience rather than a vision of the possible. The woof threads of the argument come particularly from Wittig’s fantasy of collective female freedom in which “elles” or the collective female subject displace “ils” as the taken-for-granted general case, and thus produce imaginatively something wholly new that, once imagined, could potentially be brought into existence by political action. The pattern of the book thus formed by these key ideas is one in which action and indeterminacy figure centrally and where risk-taking is an essential feature of all politics. Her own “risky” strategy is to rely on non-U.S. feminist theorists who are relatively early and underappreciated in the United States. While this is itself a second special pleasure for those of us engaged with the European feminist movements that found these authors so very important for their own development, Zerilli’s choice of the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective and Monique Wittig as two of her most central authors is also a form of subtle resistance to the ongoing Butler boom in feminist theorizing. Zerilli does not ignore or undervalue Judith Butler’s ideas, but she does place them in a profoundly different context. Indeed, she succeeds in even making Butler seem less deeply radical because her claims are more about individual identities and less centrally concerned with what she considers the essence of the political, the space between people as actors, the common ground of a relationship in which both the self and the other are taken as free. One’s political actions are thus not taken in relationship to a reified structural condition like heteronormativity but in real interrelationship with other women and men who contest these actions with their own; either affirmation or refusal is possible in such relational spaces. This foregrounds the third virtue of Zerilli’s work, its focus on political claims- making as being a self-efficacious form of political action, not mere “rhetoric.” Although distancing herself from their projects, Zerilli appears to me to be offering more of a refinement than a repudiation of the insights offered by American femi- nist theorists Judith Butler and Joan Scott. In my view, they have earned the great



influence they are having globally in shaping feminist political theorizing by dislodg- ing easy categorizations of gender and feminism. Butler and Scott have offered im- portant interventions into political feminism that I think are somewhat mischaracter- ized by Zerilli. Her critiques of identity politics present them as offering a distinctive “third-wave feminist” perspective on gender politics that could be repaired by a re- turn to a more overtly political second-wave agenda of the “liberation of women” rather than “transformation of gender relations.” Because I see the focus on both aspects of social change as simultaneously im- portant, I think Zerilli’s false opposition between “second-wave” and “third-wave” views not only underplays the extent to which both perspectives were actually de- veloping fairly simultaneously in the mid 1980s and early 1990s but also leaves the practical work of claims-making underspecified. Both the interactional level, which Butler emphasizes, and the institutional level, which Scott examines more closely, are also arenas for politics that could be more integrated into Zerilli’s view of col- lective self-organization of women as a practice of politics. Still, Zerilli is doing a great theoretical service by putting human relationships and the profoundly human potential of speech and choice on the table, reclaiming some of the radical potential that Butler and Scott attributed to speech acts. Zerilli resists the tendency to reduce such speech to either identity work or abstract choice, just as she resists framing political choice to their liberal versions of either economic rationality or contract theory, in both of which she uses Kant and Arendt quite nicely to counter. Claims-making is for her a profoundly political work of self-articulation in relationship with others. What the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective of Italian feminists and Monique Wittig, as a French imaginative writer, add to the picture is their ability actually to imagine women in the actual process of emerging as collective subjects, not as purely individual ones. Like Ute Gerhard (1990), an interdisciplinary German feminist social scientist (whom Zerilli cites approvingly but does not further pursue), Wittig and the Milanese find grounds to reject egalitarianism as an approach to rights that is too formal and too male-defined. They seek instead to imagine an alternative collective claims- making process by women on behalf of women that does not collapse into the categoricalism that Scott (1996), Butler (1990), Connell (1987), Hill Collins (1990), and others were—also in this same period—showing to be untenable. Working with European texts as she does makes Zerilli’s book an important counter to the rights-centered stream of American feminist thought that is quick to dismiss Wittig and the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective as “difference femi- nism” and thus as incompatible with either social diversity among women or gaining rights as a political project suited for feminists. One of Zerilli’s goals seems to be to rescue the radical democratic aims of these theorists from the knee-jerk categorical interpretations of their thinking. By interpreting these two radical feminist texts as instead “allowing” a collective subject to emerge in the political process of demo- cratic claims-making, of producing “women” as a political act itself, and one of uncertain consequences, Zerilli offers a way to think about making claims for rights that does not privilege an individual, contractual, legalistic, and not coincidentally male-centered version of feminist politics. Insofar as both European and American feminists have come to rely more and more on state-centered policy making as a means of political action and have looked to feminist “expertise” to make their case, the attention Zerilli pays to a collective project that is interactional and relational from the grassroots up offers a radical reorienting perspective. But given the continuing European emphasis on helping and supporting women as a group, and on turning the collective political subject “women” into the aggregate



policy object “woman,” the chief function of Zerilli’s rethinking will be very different for them than for Americans. The American resistance to collective subjects and objects is not only a feature of our liberal gender politics but is a pervasive aspect of American exceptionalism overall. Thus the taint of “difference” thinking has an element of rhetorical discredit in the American context that it lacks in Europe, which may account for the absence of attention to the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective here in the United States, even though it provided a core text for debate in most European countries in the late 1980s. While “difference” theorists in the United States, such as Carol Gilligan (1982) and Deborah Tannen (1990), have found considerable resonance among popular readers, American feminists interested in politics and policy making vigorously resist their blandishments. The fear that “special policy” for women is the necessary outcome of seeing women act collectively as women is what Zerilli seems at special pains to rebut, and this appears also to be part of the appeal to her that Arendt’s distinction between the social and the political can offer. Yet, even though this is a direction in which many European feminists working on policy issues seem to have taken in their versions of difference feminism, it does not seem to be as generally a feature of women doing politics, as her concerns with it suggest. The American feminist application of her theoretical work lies in a quite different direction. It is a shame that this book is so densely written as a classic philosophical tome, since Zerilli’s arguments might help nudge American feminists away from seeing “equal rights” as the defining feature of what feminism is about, without trying to redeem “difference” as some categorical property that women have or conceding any epistemological privilege to any configuration of categorical oppression. Zerilli offers a dense but eloquent condemnation of the “victim discourse” into which such claims for privilege leads. As she says, real women are not able to see themselves in the one-dimensional figure of the oppressed victim. Cognitive acceptance of “women’s” sorry state as a social fact and emotional rejection of oppressed victim as a livable identity can certainly lead to the three-sex theory that I have encountered among stu- dents: “there’s men, there’s women and there’s me.” The actual embrace of feminism, however, has never seemed to me to involve such an identity anymore than it would call for some dichotomous choice of men or women as objects of identification, affection, and struggle that Zerilli still seems to take more or less for granted. Overall, Zerilli’s stated objective is to “return” feminism to being what she calls a theory of freedom rather than a theory concerned with either equal rights or gender differences. Her focus on women’s liberation—a theory of freedom—attempts to recapture the 1970s sense that women had to achieve their own liberation as women, rather than joining a “male movement” that would eventually extend rights and benefits to women as a reward for their support. Of course, the idea of women as a category acting on “their own behalf” proved both theoretically and politically insupportable over the following decades, and Zerilli locates the collapse of “women’s liberation” as political project in the “crisis” of the subject category women. If this categorization is not more “true” than all its competitors, on what can its political claims rest? In the loss of women as a political subject, Zerilli fears a return to seeing women instrumentally, that is, to viewing women’s rights and political power as means to other ends, be it the victory of small-d democracy or that of the capital-D Democratic Party. While these are for Zerilli—as for me—social goods devoutly to be desired, she does—and in my opinion correctly—follow Arendt in making a sharp distinction between the social and the political as values. In her possibly controversial reading of Arendt, the social is defined as the goods that institutions like markets, families,



and states can distribute or redistribute and the relationships governed by producing, sharing, and consuming these goods. The political can and does affect the social, but should never be reduced to it; it is a higher realm of self-realization. The struggles to express one’s self and achieve recognition by others are where Zerilli locates the political. For her, the political actions of making claims, the rhetorical opportunity to discover “new words” and thereby think genuinely new thoughts, and the political decision to affirm or refuse community and affiliation are the heart of the feminist project. Like Arendt, she assigns to this realm of “the political,” with all its indeterminate and inherently unending struggles, the ultimate meaning of freedom. This freedom to be a political actor is for her the essence of democracy, and the freedom to act (and be recognized or not as a meaningful political actor) is one that she argues belongs just as much to self-asserting collectives as to self-asserting individuals, in both cases resting on no firmer foundation than the claim and, crucially, its recognition by others. Acting in and for freedom risks nonrecognition, the “abyss” of uncertainty caused by any noncompelled action having nondeterminate outcomes, and thus may inspire fear. In the argument that Zerilli weaves, it is this fear of freedom that inspires histor- ically determinist theories of social change, socially determinist theories of categorical politics, politically determinist theories of rights and contracts as self-enforcing, and psychologically determinist theories of identity and meaning. Political action itself— and speech as a crucial form of political action—is the core element making society. Because such actions are free, we are responsible for them—whether we act or think that we are not acting, which is itself an action. And this responsibility is ours, both individually and collectively, in the communities of action we create by what we affirm or refuse. Even when we cannot know the outcome of standing with any particular women (or men) in any particular struggle, it is this free action that makes feminist politics both feminist and political. Now for some final, more critical notes. While I think it would be an oversimplifi- cation of Zerilli’s argument to reduce the social to what Nancy Fraser (1989) called redistribution and see the political as just another name for what Fraser termed “recognition politics,” there certainly is some affinity between Fraser and Zerilli, even if only in their bracketing of arguments about redistribution as a narrow and misleading model of politics. I appreciate the critical stance that Zerilli takes toward “instrumentalized” gender politics, where the issue of what women’s empowerment should be thought of as “good for” dominates, as it does in much economic and social development discourse today. I concur that instrumentalizing women’s rights as signs of modernity, democracy, progress, or any other social good implies losing sight of women’s freedom as a good in its own right. But I doubt Zerilli’s diagnosis of this instrumentalization as being at its heart the same problem as those that are roiling the U.S. and European feminist movements and that makes it difficult in practice to stand “for women.” Indeed, the issues that are most difficult for practical feminist politics are not the same in any meaningful sense even in the European Union (EU) and the United States, let alone for feminists and women’s movements worldwide. On the one hand, the “recognition struggles” over immigration, EU citizenship, and the intersection of gender politics with diversity politics in issues like wearing a headscarf or gender- based electoral quotas are deeply unsettling to feminists in Europe. On the other hand, U.S. feminists who can easily shrug off the importance of headscarves and have no party structures in which quotas would be meaningful are struggling instead to confront the redistribution crisis ushered in by America’s new Gilded Age. How one



does redistribution politics is also profoundly about standing with and for certain people, but it is not so clearly distinct from the social and instrumental ideas of politics that Zerilli—with Arendt—critiques. Nor is it as obvious as Zerilli would have it that either of these struggles can be resolved by a commitment to take political risks in imagining a collective em- powerment of women as a self-liberating act. Her skepticism toward the increasing feminist “march through the institutions” of conventional politics is not matched with a critical consideration of how collective efforts at the grassroots level, such as the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, worked out in actual political practice. Although their book frames their struggle as a successful claim to speak and be recognized as women in relation to other women, a fair picture of the contested and uncertain nature of politics that Zerilli affirms should also lead her to look at those who rejected this approach, the unanticipated outcomes (both good and bad) that grew out of these practices, and the continued efforts by members of the collective to practice freedom outside this very particular context. In this sense, Zerilli’s effort to resolve an allegedly general feminist crisis of theory may not be as useful to actual feminist movements as she thinks it should be. Even if feminist activists were inclined to wade through this sort of work of feminist theory, which despite Butler’s roaring success, I tend to doubt, Zerilli’s defense of a collective feminist subject who can risk making claims and is constituted in the action of making such a claim does not help to guide feminists confronted with concrete problems of claims-making or coalition-building, which are indeed always contextual, contingent, and uncertain. But that is also what Zerilli herself would say, and not knowing what outcome her intervention into feminist debates would have, she still took the risk of making it and having it refused. I applaud these efforts and hope that others will also appreciate her rhetorical intervention as the contribution to women’s liberation that she has made here.


Butler, J. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Connell, R. W. 1987. Gender and Power: Society, the Person, and Sexual Politics. Stanford, CA: Stanford

University Press.

Fraser, N. 1989. Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory. Min-

neapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Gerhard, U. 1990. Gleichheit ohne Angleichung: Frauen im Recht. Munich: Beck (translated from the

German by A. Brown and B. Cooper as Debating Women’s Equality: Toward a Feminist Theory of Law

from a European Perspective, 2001, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press).

Gilligan, C. 1982. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA:

Harvard University Press.

Hill Collins, P. 1990. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.

Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman.

Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective. 1987. Non Credere di Avere dei Diritti . Turin: Rosenberg & Sellier.

(English title, Sexual Difference: A Theory of Social-Symbolic Practice, 1990, Bloomington, IN: Indiana

University Press).

Scott, J. W. 1996. Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man. Cambridge, MA:

Harvard University Press.

Tannen, D. 1990. You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. New York: Morrow.

Wittig, M. 1969. Les Guerilli ´ eres ` . Paris:

Editions ´ de Minuit (translated from the French by D. LeVay,

1971, London: P. Owen; U.S. reprint, 1985, Boston, MA: Beacon Press).



The Institutional Foundations of Free Action


University of Chicago

Although the very first word in the title of Linda Zerilli’s book is “feminism,” one

does not have to read it as a contribution to feminist literature. The reason is given

in the last word of the title, which is “freedom.” For the book’s central concern is

the defense of an Arendtian anti-sovereign, pro-relational understanding of political

action as freedom, which is as relevant for general political theory, in fact for general

politics, as it is for feminism. So I will offer a reading here, which for the most part

takes Zerilli’s book as a general exercise in political theory building. That is to

say that I will completely refrain from wrestling with the question of what kind of

intervention it aspires to make in ongoing feminist discourses. This said, I would

misunderstand the author profoundly if I did not at least also read the book as a

political act. After all, it is a performance in a wider genre, which might be called

in analogy to litterature ´


a theorie ´

engagee´ , that is, a writing practice with

a political agenda. In effect, then, the book offers a theory of political action as

freedom while at the same time performing such an act. This offers us readers an

opportunity to see how well the theory does in self-application. My point in playing

this old trick of criticism is not to call attention to a possible performative self-

contradiction of the text for the sake of judging its value in terms of the seemingly

transcendental value. Instead, my intention in using this ruse is to reveal, in a

somewhat single-minded fashion, especially one significant substantive blindspot of

Zerilli’s conceptual apparatus, the question of the institutional foundations of political

action as freedom. Moreover, I will show that this blindspot derives especially from

an overreliance on Arendt’s notion of freedom, while suggesting that there are other

conceptions of freedom that might have served Zerilli’s critical purpose just as well,

while directing our attention precisely to the enabling conditions of institutional

arrangements. Finally, we shall see at the end how my somewhat theatrically wielded

sword of criticism is in part blunted by Zerilli’s own theoretization of the particular

quality of the claims she is making as akin to aesthetic judgments rather than to

truth-capable constatives.

Throughout the book, Hannah Arendt is not only Zerilli’s main source of inspi-

ration but she is in fact Zerilli’s authorizing spirit—and we shall see in a minute

what this means. It is from the author of the Human Condition (1998) and related

essays (especially 1977) that she derives her notion of freedom as action. According

to Arendt, freedom is not a matter of choice, not a property of the will, but instead

a property of action. She captures the difference between what she calls freedom as

sovereignty and her own model of freedom in action with the distinction between

the formulas “I-will” and “I-can” (Arendt 1977:157ff). As a matter of fact, I think,

Arendt would have been better off referring to her own model in terms of “I-do,”

since she greatly emphasizes that freedom is strictly in actu not in posse. In all ad-

mirable brevity, Arendt (1977:151) says: “for to be free and to act are the same.” In

that vein, she also emphasizes that free action has nothing to do with intellect, or

with any kind of symbolically facilitated understanding. And yet, she admits that to

realize a goal, action needs both intellect and will. But then, for Arendt, free action

is not action for something else: it is based neither on a “because” nor on an “in

order to.” Thus, it is not meaningful action in the sense that Alfred Schutz ¨




interprets Max Weber’s central category. The point for Arendt is precisely that free

action has neither origin nor destiny: it is sui generis, creatio ex nihilo. It marks

human beings’ capacity to begin something new, something that has not been in the

world before, something that qualifies human beings as creators. Without stretching

Arendt, one could also say that the capacity to act is the divine in us; it turns

mere mortals into everyday performers of miracles, or in the theological imaginary

of Arendt’s beloved ancient Greece: into unmoved movers.

Zerilli argues quite rightly that this notion of freedom brushes much of the Western

tradition against its dominant grain. And nowhere more so than in the social sci-

ences, for Arendt’s conception of freedom implies that there is in the traditional sense

neither explanation nor explication of action qua action. Evidently, action cannot be

subsumed under an external law; nor can it be subsumed under an institutionally or

motivationally grounded rule. As such, action is outside the purview of the social

sciences altogether, including their hermeneutic branches. Importantly, however, her

notion of action introduces a radical, irreducible element of contingency into human

history. Thanks to the creativity of action, everything could have always been oth-

erwise. For Zerilli, this is precisely “the good news” that Arendt brings. It is a way

of thinking that she credits with the possibility to unstick feminist thought, perhaps

even feminist politics. And I hasten to add again: political theory and politics more


At this point, it is important to remember that freedom as action for Arendt

and Zerilli is thoroughly nonindividual, and not only because it has to make its

appearance in public. It is nonindividual or political, first, because it is guided

by what Arendt (1977:151) calls “principles” such as “honor or glory [or] love of

equality” and, second, because it is a world-building practice that has to rely on

the collaboration of others. To illuminate what Arendt means here, Zerilli moves

us to a discussion of Monique Wittig’s writing, especially her novel Les guerilli ´

eres `

(1985), as well as the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective’s manifesto Sexual Dif-

ference (1990), in which the women running the shop critically reflect on their

own political practices. In the Italian original, this manifesto is entitled “Non

Credere di Avere dei Diritti ,” which means literally translated “not to believe to

have rights.” The Italian title—qualified through the double infinitive as a principle

in Arendt’s sense—brings to the fore what Zerilli has in mind with her plea for

the concept of freedom as action: the attempt to be neither positively nor nega-

tively determined by what there was; to act therefore in a way that has as little

room for resentment as for a theoretically inspired grand strategy formulated in

the service of a utopia. Rather, the point is first and foremost community forma-

tion, the core of which is the mutual entrustment with authority in the here and


On the basis of my own work on oppositional movements in former East Germany,

I fully concur with Zerilli that forming a new network of authority is perhaps the

act par excellence, or better perhaps, it is its condition sine qua non. Of course,

this is anything but an unconditioned act, even though—and again I agree with

Zerilli—it is usually anything but a consciously enacted plan. Yet, it does rely on

layers of institutions for it to succeed: it presupposes tried organizational forms (e.g.,

the alternative bookstore is an old means of focalizing a movement), it assumes a

repertoire of practices (e.g., forms of commensality, meeting, and discussion routines),

and it builds on ideologies of togetherness (e.g., in the English translation, the women

advertise themselves as “collective”). I would surmise that the entrustment of the

Milanese booksellers is inconceivable without experiences of working together and



laboring together—to make use of the other Arendtian concepts of doing (Arendt

1998). Moreover, it is inconceivable without a web of affective relationships beginning

to entangle the women. No doubt they are creative, no doubt something new is in

the making here, and again I am struck with their attention to authorization, which

I think is extremely apt. Yet, this newness is built on the old without which it is

inconceivable to have taken the particular form that it has. In fact, as much as

institutions can be constraining, the innovative use of the existing institutional fabric

in which they maneuver is the very condition for the possibility of their freedom.

Moreover, to further their ability to act politically, the women take recourse to long

discussions about their own practice, the sedimentation of which is the manifesto

that Zerilli is reading with so much empathy. In other words, what seems to enable

a practice of freedom is a certain dialectic between practice and its discursification.

So even in this dimension, and quite contrary to Arendt’s and Zerilli’s claims, a

particular form of knowledge emerges as a condition for an ongoing practice of


If we look at Zerilli’s book as a political act, a similar picture emerges. She, too,

maneuvers between various institutions and institutional orders. She juxtaposes, ne-

gotiates, mobilizes American, French, Italian as well as first-wave, second-wave, and

third-wave feminists, as well as Kantian, Arentian, and poststructuralist philosoph-

ical discourses. Moreover, she relies on an institutional order to broadcast her call,

her invitation for others to join her in her efforts for a renewed feminism. There

is the book as a cultural and industrial form, written in a particular genre, there

is this very meeting (i.e., the American Sociological Association Meeting in New

York, 2007) in which we are all participating. Had I chosen to read Zerilli for her

intervention in feminist discourses, I could have made a related point by donning

a Leninist goatee, arguing against Zerilli in the role of Rosa Luxemburg. That is

to say that even the central set-up of the argument spontaneity versus organiza-

tion, practice versus planning, follows a well-established plot in the history of social

movements. So we have here the performative self-contradiction that I talked about

at the beginning of my talk. Or so it seems.

My main point is simple. The Arendt/Zerilli theory of freedom as political action

has a significant blindspot. Through the celebration of radical newness, its account

of creativity is preempting a deeper reflection on the institutional sources of creative

action. One could think about this in the following way. Theories of freedom can be

seen as falling into two major categories. There are first theories of indeterminacy.

The choice model is perhaps the predominant variety of it, which emphasizes the

will as arbiter between alternatives. Arendt’s own theory is in many ways a radical

model of indeterminacy, where the point is not choice but a new beginning, a stab

into the dark (hence the word “abyss” in Zerilli’s title). Second, there are theories

of overdetermination. One such model is Georg Simmel’s (1908) account on how

individuality and freedom emerge in what he calls the intersection of social circles.

His basic idea is that human beings are embedded in so many institutional spheres

at the same time that they cannot possibly honor the demands of all of them. In-

stead, they can play off one demand against another; they can enter with others into

negotiations about these demands thus gaining degrees of freedom not only from

their constraints, but with the help of an appeal to the legitimacy of their constraints

against them. Another such theory is formed by the interrelated Bakhtinian notions

of dialogue, heteroglossia, and polyphony which together emphasize that linguistic

utterances are often characterized by the tension between several internal perspec-

tives or “voices,” which in their tension and ambiguity open spaces for a creative



imagination (e.g., tropological accounts of creativity, e.g., Blumenberg 1975; Hallyn

1990), depicting it as a transposition of understandings from one domain of practice

or knowledge into another by eliciting the good offices of analogies, metaphors, al-

legories, etc. And so does the new rhetoric emphasizing the negotiation of a diverse

set of perspectives to find a common ground to stand on (e.g., Burke 1969).

It is no accident that, unlike Arendt, models of overdetermination emphasize the

linguistic and forms of knowledge as the enabling condition for freedom. This has

much to do with the fact that the symbolic opens a specific kind of temporality

for human beings. It not only connects an actual past with an expected future in a

flat horizon of time, but by providing a subjunctive mode, language unfolds a dome

of potentialities which enables human beings to acquire imagination in playing with

counterfactuals, alternative worlds, pure fiction.

What unites all of these theories of overdetermination is their emphasis on a com-

peting plurality of perspectives, voices, authorities, norms, ideas, practices, ways of

doing, etc. as the enabling condition for freedom and creativity. Since this plural-

ity, whatever it is, must become available to us as a serious contender, they direct

our attention to the institutionalization of these pluralities as well as to the institu-

tional arrangements through which they can be negotiated, adjudicated, and judged.

In other words, they direct our attention to the institutionalization of publics and

counterpublics, modes of performance and argumentative conduct, spaces for exper-

imentation and symbolic production, etc.

Interestingly, and most significantly, it is here that Zerilli makes—again in reference

to Arendt and her reading of Kant’s third critique—a very valuable contribution.

She urges us to understand political claims on the model of Kant’s theory of aes-

thetic judgment. Her point is that political claims should not be primarily seen as

propositions about the world that could be either true or false according to some

objective criterion; nor should they be understood as merely subjective statements

about preferences, as, for example, rational choice theorists would have it. Instead,

they should be interpreted as invitations to join in to respond to them in an ef-

fort of making a better world together. In the legalese of civic law contract theory,

they should be understood as an invitatio ad offerendum, with the potential to build

new institutions in common negotiation. And thus, Zerilli manages to perform a

Bakhtinian feat: she sets Arendt in dialogue with herself to begin the formulation of

a new beginning. And if I may continue this thought movement, which may be called

not a de-construction in the service of debunking some unjustly assumed authority

but a re-construction of possibilities from within the interstices of heteroglossia.

Arendt speaks of action and its creativity in a language employed two decades after

her by practice theorists such as Bourdieu (1977) and de Certeau (1984). Of course,

they have insisted that “the arts of doing” do not only have a history and that they

need to be cultivated but also that they operate from within an existing institutional

fabric. Creativity feeds on location, if you like.

Since Zerilli’s theoretical claims are in fact political claims and thus judgments of

the kind just described, that is, not propositions about the world but invitations for a

common world-building that begin in the subjunctive “what if we assumed that” to be

redeemed, altered, and negotiated in our response, the performative self-contradiction

disappears in the sense that the appeal is geared toward an institution that might

lie in the future, rather than one that was presupposed. What does not disappear

is in my opinion the undertheoretization of the institutional basis for a politics of

freedom in action. But of course, that is what we are here for to negotiate, in an



exchange of acts of freedom in the institutional lap—of all places—the American

Sociological Association.


Arendt, H. 1977. “What is Freedom.” In Between Past and Future. London: Penguin.

———. 1998. The Human Condition, 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Blumenberg, H. 1975. Die Genesis der kopernikanischen Welt. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Bourdieu, P. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burke, K. 1969. The Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

de Certeau, M. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Hallyn, F. 1990. The Poetic Structure of the World: Copernicus and Kepler. New York: Zone.

Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective. 1990. Sexual Difference. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Schutz, ¨

A. 1932. Der Sinnhafte Aufbau der Sozialen Welt. Wien: Springer.

Simmel, G. 1908. Soziologie. Leipzig: Duncker&Humblot.

Wittig, M. 1985. Les Guerill ´ eres ` . Boston, MA: Beacon.

The New Aesthetic-Political Avant-Garde: Linda Zerilli’s Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom


University of Michigan

This is an incredibly stimulating and brilliant book, a pleasure to read, and an

erudite challenge to feminist and other theories of politics. My comments should be

read in light of my overall enthusiasm for Linda Zerrilli’s Feminism and the Abyss of


My first set of comments has to do with theory as inaugurating a new begin-

ning, to use the author’s own words. Linda Zerilli discusses this with respect to

the second and third waves of feminist theory. Marxism has also had this quality

of new beginnings, of self-renovation, first in the era of Marx himself, then again

during the 1920s and 1930s (with Lukacs, ´

Horkheimer, and others), and for a third

time in the 1960s (with Althusser and the various neo-Marxisms he spawned). But

there is something specific about these feminism discussions, which is their greater

resonance beyond their own subfield, their importance for other ongoing theoreti-

cal programs, including Marxist ones. Zerilli’s book itself has this peculiar quality,

in that one often forgets that one is reading a book centered on feminist theory.

The implications of her book for democratic politics and for social and political

theory more generally are sweeping. And the previous waves of feminist thinking

she discusses had similar radiating effects. Second-wave feminism broke Marxism’s

unitary, totalizing explanatory stance. Dual systems theory, as it was called, affected

Marxism more profoundly than earlier efforts to remind Marxists of the independent

causal importance of power politics or cultural systems, for example, in the work

of Max Weber (1930, 1978), or of the autonomous role of racism and racialization,

for example, in the work of W. E. B. Du Bois (1915, 1950). Feminist standpoint

theory, despite Zerilli’s valid critiques of it, invigorated other discussions of stand-

point epistemology, moving the discussion beyond where it had been with Lukacs ´



(1968). Similarly, third-wave feminism and gender, sexuality, and queer studies were

able to make neo-Marxists take seriously the idea of the construction and decon-

struction of social categories. Michel Foucault, whom I would include in this third

wave, convinced neo-Marxists to reexamine what both Freud and Lacan had already

said about the inability of biology to explain sexual difference and identification.

Judith Butler’s writing on performativity directed Marxists and sociologists toward

Wittgenstein and Austen. Feminism in this period led Bourdieu to revisit his Alge-

rian fieldwork, drawing out more fully its implications for understanding masculine

domination (compare Bourdieu 1958, 1964 and Bourdieu 2001).

This is not to say that feminism is interesting mainly because it is relevant to

nonfeminists. On the contrary, the mechanisms of masculine domination, gendered

identification, and sexuality are interesting in their own light and need to be theorized

as processes in their own right. But this is true of all causal mechanisms in the human

sciences. Gender, like any other process, needs to be conceptualized separately even if

it is almost always expressed in conjunction with other mechanisms (Bhaskar 1975,

1979, 1986; Collier 1994; Steinmetz 1998; Archer, Bhaskar, Collier, Lawson, and

Norrie 1998). Nonetheless, social scientists have long been beguiled by the chimerical

goal of “general theory,” that is, the quest for a single-mechanism explanation of

the social (Steinmetz 2005). Theorists of gender have been best able to disrupt the

plausibility of such monocausal accounts of the social-real (even if some feminists

have mimicked the positivists in promoting gender as the long sought after general

explanatory category, e.g., Firestone 1970).

Linda Zerilli’s book is an example of the sort of inaugural force she discusses,

part of a fourth wave of feminist thinking, this time focused on democratic theory.

Zerilli emphasizes the contingent inauguration and maintenance of new worlds by

collectivities acting not as sovereign rational subjects exercising their free, skeptical

will, but in ways that resemble the capacity for making aesthetic judgments as an-

alyzed by Hannah Arendt. Politics in this sense does not resemble the logic Kant

calls determinant judgment, which assimilates a new object to an existing category.

Politics does not subsume a particular under a universal, explaining it as the continu-

ation of an existing series. Instead, politics more closely resembles Kant’s aesthetic or

reflective judgment, which recognizes a particular as beautiful immediately, without

subsuming it under a concept, before searching for a universal. Politics is also about

unprecedented, unexpected new beginnings, practices that do not yet have a name or

a rule. Aesthetic judgments, like political ones, are involved in streiten (quarreling),

not disputerien (disputing): agreement cannot be reached through proof. Aesthetic

agreement results from a common sense that preexists each act of aesthetic judgment.

It is a creative, not just a reproductive force: Darstellung as opposed to Vorstellung

(Zerilli, p. 153).

How then are we to imagine political agreement? How can radically novel practices

be given a concept? This is necessary according to Zerilli if these radical inaugura-

tions are not to vanish into thin air. Politics needs to be given a concept, but without

transforming and renarrating its contingent novelty in ways that make the act of po-

litical inauguration appear to have been always already necessary or inevitable. Zerilli

argues with Wittgenstein and Cavell that there is necessarily something nonrational

and nonconceptual prior to the act of giving a concept to political praxis. Without

this prerational aspect, we could not make sense of the so-called paradox of fem-

inist founding, which directly parallels the classical problem in political theory of

the necessarily nondemocratic, decisionistic character of the founding of democratic




My first set of questions revolves around this use of Kant. Sociologists have

always been skeptical of Kant’s critique of judgment because of its notion of the

disinterested judgment (see especially Bourdieu 1984). The word interest crops up

late in Zerilli’s book (pp. 147–49) and it does so in the context of Arendt’s denial of

the interestedness of truly political acts, that is, of political judgments. It is somewhat

unclear whether Zerilli is endorsing or merely summarizing Kant and Arendt here,

however. It is also the case that Arendt is equating interest with narrowly utilitarian

interests, whereas Bourdieu proposes a more paradoxical but also more compelling

notion of disinterested interest. This is one place where the social forces its way back

into the analysis despite Arendt’s (1958) best efforts to keep it at bay.

A second question concerns the question of individual versus collective categories

of analysis and practice. Zerilli is quite clear that politics involves collective inaugu-

rations. This emerges clearly in Chapter 3 on the Milan Collective and in Chapter

2 on Monique Wittig. Zerilli argues that the initial reception of Wittig as having

prevented readers from understanding her contribution. This raises the question of

individual versus collective creativity: Is the inaugural act the creation of the poetic

work (which is an individual act) or its later reception (which is collective)?

The author also insists on acts of inauguration as free of causality and deter-

mination. There is a powerful, almost incantatory insistence throughout Feminism

and the Abyss of Freedom that undetermined beginnings are possible. This insistence

resonates with other contemporary thinkers such as Alain Badiou (1999, 2001, 2005)

and the left-Schmittian decisionists (Mouffe 1999; Kalyvas 1998, 2004, 2008). This is

the language of the left avant-garde, which also has always been involved in blurring

the boundaries between aesthetics and politics. The left has always been instinctively

opposed to thinkers who seem to banish the idea of completely new beginnings.

But does this make sense theoretically? To return to Bourdieu (1996), he discusses

Flaubert as creating an entirely new field of literature in the 19th century. Flaubert’s

action is not the result of a completely conscious strategic rationality, nor is it fore-

ordained by his background or social structural properties. But his creative project,

like that of artistic innovators in general, is “a meeting point and an adjustment

between determinism and a determination” (1971:185). What is gained by arguing

that a form of action is completely undetermined? Hasn’t this discourse been rather

disastrous for revolutionary movements in the past? And on a slightly different but

related point, hasn’t this argument been used as much by the right as the left (e.g.,

Freyer 1933)?

A related question concerns Castoriadis’s concept of the imaginary (1987). We

know that Castoriadis was reacting at least in part to Lacan and his notion of

the imaginary (Ziarek 1998; Stavrakakis 2002). For Lacan, the imaginary is both

determined and determining, created and creative. Could the desire for a structure-

breaking event that inaugurates a new series itself be related to imaginary fan-

tasies (of new beginnings, autogenesis, or a sort of family romance on a collec-

tive scale)? And can something that is a psychic fantasy be willed in a decisionist




Zerilli’s book resonates with the recent work of Ernesto Laclau, Slavoj

Zizek, ˇ

Chantal Mouffe, and Alain Badiou. The latter is perhaps most relevant here, since

he theorizes the “event” as a “pure invention or discovery beyond the mere trans-

mission of recognized knowledge” that is “not of the historical order” and does

not belong to any existing “set,” but is “an opening of an epoch, a change in the

relations between the possible and the impossible” (Badiou 1999:49, 2005; Radical

Politics 2006; Aeschimann 2007). Like Zerilli’s theory, Badiou’s operates in areas



like love and art as well as politics. There is widespread avant-gardism across the

political-philosophical spectrum and in ongoing nonparliamentary politics, perhaps

especially in Europe. Anyone interested in reading the most philosophically sophisti-

cated statement of this avant-garde political program should read Feminism and the

Abyss of Freedom.




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———. 2001. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil . London: Verso.

———. 2005. Being and Event. London: Continuum.

Bhaskar, R. [1975] 1978. A Realist Theory of Science. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Press.

———. 1986. Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation. London: Verso.

———. 1979. The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences.

New York: Humanities Press.

Bourdieu, P. 1958. Sociologie de l’Algerie ´ , 1st ed. Paris: PUF.

———. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univer-

sity Press.

———. 2001. Masculine Domination. Cambridge, UK: Polity.



———. 1964. Le Deracinement ´ . Paris:

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———. [1950] 1978. “The Problem of the Twentieth Century is the Problem of the Color Line.” Pp.

281–89 in W. E. B. Du Bois on Sociology and the Black Community, edited by D. S. Green and E. D.

Driver. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Firestone, S. 1970. The Dialectic of Sex; The Case for Feminist Revolution. New York: Morrow.

Freyer, H. 1933. Herrschaft und Planung. Hamburg, Germany: Hanseatische Verlagsanstalt.

Kalyvas, A. 1998. “The Radical Instituting Power and Democratic Theory.” Journal of the Hellenic

Diaspora 24(1):9–29.

———. 2004. “From the Act to the Decision: Hannah Arendt and the Question of Decisionism.” Political

Theory 32(4):320–46.

———. 2008. Democracy and the Politics of the Extraordinary: Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, and Hannah

Arendt. Cambridge: CUP.

Lukacs, ´

G. 1968. “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.” Pp. 83–222 in History and Class

Consciousness, edited by Georg Lukacs. ´

Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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Radical Politics. 2006. “After the Event: Rationality and the Politics of Invention. An Interview with

Alain Badiou.” Prelom (English edition) 8:180–94.

Stavrakakis, Y. 2002. “Creativity and its Limits: Encounters with Social Constructionism and the Political

in Castoriadis and Lacan.” Constellations 9(4):522–36.

Steinmetz, G. 1998. “Critical Realism and Historical Sociology.” Comparative Studies in Society and

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the Human Sciences: Positivism and its Epistemological Others, edited by G. Steinmetz. Durham, NC:

Duke University Press.

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———. 1978. Economy and Society. 2 vols. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.



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Ethics.” Diacritics 28(1):59–75.

Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom: Rejoinder to Ferree, Glaeser, and Steinmetz


Northwestern University

Let me first express thanks to Myra Marx Ferree, Andreas Glaeser, and George

Steinmetz for reading and commenting on my book, as well as to Ann Shola Orloff

and Julia Adams for their participation in the American Sociological Association

panel at which this discussion began. It is an honor and a privilege for me, a

feminist political theorist, to have my work discussed by such renowned sociologists.

In what follows, I will first try to summarize the central concerns of the book and

then turn to the individual responses.

Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom has its origins in my own entanglement in the

so-called category of “women” debates that dominated American feminism in the

late 1980s and the 1990s. These debates were initially inspired by critiques brought

by “women of color” (e.g., bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Cherrie Moraga) and

developed in related but different ways by feminists working under the sign of post-

structuralism (e.g., Judith Butler, Joan Scott, and Chantal Mouffe). They called into

question the idea of women as a coherent identity group in order to expose the raced,

classed, and sexed character of the subject of feminism. I applauded this moment in

the development of feminist theory. But like other feminists of my generation, I also

worried about the political consequences of such questioning. If we could no longer

speak of women as a coherent group, in whose name was feminism to be fought?

With the postmodern scare mercifully behind us, the sense of crisis that emerged

in American feminist circles in the 1990s, especially after the publication of Gender

Trouble, can barely be grasped today. Butler in particular was accused of destroying

feminism by calling into question the category of women. I found the vilification of

Butler and of postmodern feminism generally not only absurd but somehow beside

the point. For one thing, it seemed strange to think that the future of feminism

could possibly hang on the status of an analytic category of feminist theory. For

another, the situation that Butler and others critically described is not one that they

created but one that they found: feminism, as a political movement, did not rely and

never did rely, right from its very origins, on a unitary subject. Rather, feminism was

and always has been the site of deep disagreements about who counts as a feminist

and what the goals of feminism should be. To hold one individual or one group

of thinkers responsible for the end of feminism was to blind oneself to one’s own


That said, I was nonetheless concerned with the consequences of such critical

questioning for feminism. Apart from the nostalgic turn toward the supposedly

unified movement of second-wave feminism, the desire to reground feminism in a

unitary subject called “women” led to some strange solutions, one of which was

“strategic essentialism”: we “know” that women as a unified group does not exist



but, for the purposes of politics, we shall act as if such a group exists. This reminded

me of David Hume’s famous answer to skepticism, which held that skeptical doubts

in the study about the existence of worldly things do not trouble us the moment

we move out of the study and into the world, in other words, the moment we

stop thinking and start acting. However true that may be as far as our skeptical

temptations go, it seemed like an insufficient response to the problems raised by

third-wave feminist critics. What could be made of the idea that any claim to speak

in the name of women must function like a rule lest it have no political significance

at all? And why would taking account of plurality among women destroy the very

possibility of speaking in the name of women?

These questions led me back to the work of Hannah Arendt, who was not a

feminist but who had a lot to say about the collapse of inherited categories for

politics. If “women” could be understood as a category that had either collapsed

under the weight of (post)modernity or, in terms of the history of modern feminism,

had never really existed as a unified category at all, why did it still have such a

hold on us? In Arendt’s view, just because a certain tradition of thinking no longer

speaks to our political reality doesn’t mean that it has lost its hold on us; in fact,

it can become even more tyrannical, for a confused moral and political orientation

can seem more appealing than no orientation at all. This helped me make sense

of the nostalgic tendencies in third-wave feminism, which I described earlier, and it

also helped me to see that I needed to interrogate the idea of politics that made the

unity of women as the subject of feminism somehow necessary to the very existence

of feminism. If plurality is a problem for your understanding of politics, I thought,

perhaps your understanding of politics is the problem.

For what understanding of politics is the plurality of women a problem? This

question allowed me to stop thinking in terms of how to mitigate the supposedly

dangerous political effects of a discovered plurality and to treat it instead as the irre-

ducible condition of feminist politics. Strategic essentialism and other such strategies

for at once recognizing plurality and containing its effects no longer seemed appeal-

ing. Apart from the problems I raised earlier, they just seemed to be negotiating the

so-called crisis of feminism in the wrong way, for they could not shake the idea that

politics demands agency, and that agency is impossible without a sovereign subject,

the very subject they put into question. In my view, the problem was not the loss

of a unified subject for politics but a conception of politics that required such a


This conception of politics, as Arendt argues, is an instrumentalist one. According

to this logic, politics does indeed require a subject and a sovereign subject at that,

one that uses politics as a means to achieve an end. Implicit in this means-ends

political logic is the idea that we can not only act according to a plan thought out

in advance (a theory) but also control or predict the outcome of our actions. By

contrast with this conventional way of thinking about political action, Arendt holds

action to be essentially unpredictable and boundless, not because we do not have

certain motivations or ends when we act, but because we simply cannot predict or

control how others will take up our actions, that is, how our actions will travel once

they are part of the infinitely complex texture of worldly reality.

The instrumentalist conception of politics that Arendt would have us question is

deeply linked to the subordination of feminism to issues concerning subjectivity, on

the one hand, and social welfare, on the other. According to the mean-ends logic of

the “social question” and the “subject question,” as I call the twin preoccupations

of all three waves of feminism, women’s political claims to full citizenship have had



to answer to the demand of utility, to show, in other words, that if met, they will

produce a certain outcome, make things better, so to speak. This has led to the

occlusion of feminism’s raison d’etre ˆ : namely, the radical and unqualified claim to

political freedom, the right to be a participator in public affairs. This claim, which

(with Arendt) I strongly distinguish from the liberal idea of negative freedom, is

what I seek to recover and defend in the book.

The freedom I have in mind is not a property of the subject; it is not the freedom

of the will whose goal is sovereignty. Rather, freedom is based on being with others

and acting in the public space. It is not “I-will” but “I-can,” and this I-can requires

others with whom one can realize what one may will. The exercise of political

freedom is first and foremost a practice of world-building, for which the presence of

other persons is not a hindrance or obstacle but freedom’s very condition. Reframing

the freedom question in feminism in terms of this I-can always pulls us back to the

question of political community and its constitution. To this question I would now

like to turn.

As I have already suggested, third-wave critiques of the category of women led to

a sense of crisis about the future of feminism as a political community. In my book, I

try to understand how such a crisis could emerge in order to recover another way of

talking about women as the subject of feminism in an effort to move the debate from

the philosophical problem of a category and its coherence to a political problem

of making public claims or speaking in someone’s name. I call this speaking the

predicative moment of politics in order to mark its constitutive character: speaking

in women’s name constitutes “women” as the subject of feminism. Understood as a

political subject and not a sociological, let alone natural, category, “women” do not

exist prior to that speaking.

“Women” as the political subject of feminism, I argue, come into existence through

the practice of making political claims in that name. This involves rethinking what

a political claim is. Second-wave feminism tended to think about political claims as

truth claims (that is, as claims that need to be and can be “justified” in the epistemic

sense of giving proofs). Third-wave feminism refused the idea that political claims

can be so justified, but it never really explained why the failure to justify them

would not lead to political crisis. Against both of these positions, I show that the

specific nature of political claims emerges only once we take leave of the register of

epistemology and begin to think about such claims as fundamentally anticipatory

rather than antecedent (e.g., justificatory) in structure. Political claims solicit the

agreement of all, but they cannot compel it in the manner of proofs. I call this the

predicative moment of feminist politics.

The predicative moment of politics involves the ability to claim commonality. There

is no guarantee that the claim will succeed or for that matter not succeed. When one

speaks politically, one speaks not only for oneself but also for others—and those

others may well speak back, that is, say whether they find themselves spoken for.

The condition of democratic politics is at once the positing of commonalities and the

speaking back. Only then is positing commonality a form of world-building based

on the exchange of opinions through which we gauge our agreement in judgments.

The idea that speaking for others (in the name of women) necessarily generates

exclusions and refusals and therefore should be avoided is to miss the whole point of

democratic politics. Such politics consists precisely in the making of universal claims

(speaking for), hence also in closure, and in their acceptance or refusal (speaking

back), hence also in openness. Fundamentally anticipatory in character, speaking

politically is about testing the limits to every claim to community, about testing



the limits and nature of agreement, and about discovering what happens when the

agreement breaks down or never materializes in the way we thought in the first

place, that is, when we spoke politically (in other words, claimed to be speaking for


In Chapter 4 of the book, I draw on Hannah Arendt’s idiosyncratic reading

of Kant’s third Critique to develop this understanding of what it means to make

a political claim. Like the aesthetic judgment of beauty that is Kant’s concern,

political claims or judgments are neither objective, based on truth criteria, nor merely

subjective, expressions of personal or cultural preference. Rather, such claims posit

or, better, anticipate the agreement of all, though they cannot compel it by the giving

of proofs, as an objective truth claim might. To say, “this war is unjust” is not to

say “it is unjust to me,” anymore than, as Kant, argues, the claim “this painting is

beautiful” means “it is beautiful for me.” The claim aspires to universality; whether

others do in fact agree is another matter and part of the practice of politics itself. In

any case, the agreement, if it does materialize, is not guaranteed by the correctness

of concept application.

To recognize the anticipatory structure of political claims is to see why it is indeed

still possible to speak in the name of “women” without giving hostage to the idea of

“women” as a coherent and unified subject that precedes and grounds all claims to

speak in its name. In short, third-wave critiques were justified, but they need not lead

to the end of feminism, for feminism is not foremost a practice of justification; it is a

practice of making claims in this nonepistemic sense. Thus I seek to return feminist

theory, as a second-order discourse, to this distinctly political understanding of claim

making, which has, after all, guided the first-order practice of feminist politics all


Following Arendt’s account of political judgment as a practice in which we posit

the agreement of others, I argue that feminist community—rather than being given

in shared experience or identity or being impossible due to the lack of anything

shared—can be created, and created anew, through such a practice. To assume, as

some third-wave feminists have, that the collapse of women as a coherent category

translates into the collapse of feminism as a political movement is to neglect both the

predicative moment of politics and the community-constituting moment of political

judgment. It is as if the category itself secured, or failed to secure, the ability to

make political claims.

What if we thought of “women” not as a category to be applied like a rule in a

determinate judgment, but as a claim to speak in someone’s name and to be spoken

for? If such a claim can only be anticipatory, then it is always in need of agreement

and consent. This agreement is posited (for example, others, too, ought to agree with

my judgment about who “women” are and what they demand), which means the

agreement is not “there” from the start, given, say, in the very logic of concept

application. Rather, the agreement is what we at once take for granted and hope

to achieve whenever we take the risk—and let us not forget that it is a risk—of

speaking politically.

To emphasize the predicative moment of politics is to call attention to the con-

stitutive character of making claims. What makes a claim political is not something

that inheres in the object or the practice that the claim is about. Thus, as I say in

the introduction, the second-wave slogan, “the person is political,” has often been

interpreted as an effort to reveal the intrinsically political character of the gendered

division of labor. I think we do better to interpret that slogan as productive of the

political character of the gendered division of labor. There is nothing intrinsically



political about housework, sexuality, or reproduction. It is the activity of making

public claims that creates relations among things that have none—for example, the

principle of equality and the gendered division of labor—which transforms something

considered either private or merely subjective into something of common concern.

Whether these claims generate agreement or a form of speaking back is the practice

of politics itself.

To recognize the fundamentally anticipatory structure of political claims is to un-

derstand why feminism cannot avoid the universal. I associate the activity of making

political claims with the difficult, conflict-ridden, and risky business of articulating

universality. There are, of course, ways of constituting the universal that are not at

all anticipatory or world-opening but merely the filling or completion of a prior de-

termination, where universal is that which unfolds logically or socially according to

a pregiven logic. This way of thinking about universality has unfortunately inflected

many discussions of rights, where rights are held to expand in ever larger circles

to groups based on a logic that is given in the nature of rights themselves. The

universal, when it is understood in a political rather than a philosophical idiom, is

not a process of subsuming particulars under rules but a practice of making political

claims in a public space, that is, of transforming what is merely subjective into some-

thing others recognize as common. A political claim aspires to universal agreement,

then, but what it produces is something else. The idea that there could be a political

claim that did not produce exclusions seems to me to be mistaken and for the most

part generated by thinking about political claims in epistemological terms. Thought

of in such terms, a political claim can appear to be something whose chances of

success can be decided at the level of theory. The idea that there could be a claim

that would not exclude and that would therefore be accepted by all is based on the

notion that feminism is somehow about getting the right definition or concept, the

one that would fully represent all women. If this were possible then theory might

indeed provide not only the guide for practice but its guarantee. I have a lot to say

about this idea of theory in the first chapter of my book.

Let me now turn to the very interesting comments on the book, starting with

those of Myra Marx Ferree. I appreciate Professor Ferree’s remarks, and am espe-

cially grateful that she addressed the question of European feminism versus Ameri-

can feminism. In this country, second- and third-wave feminism has been excessively

concerned with the principle of equality and skeptical of arguments about sexual

difference. In Europe, by contrast, difference arguments have been seen as necessary

for creating meaningful social and political equality between men and women. Al-

though there certainly are dangers in difference arguments, it is also the case that

arguments for equality have tended to leave women unable to give voice to the

reality of the socially structurally and enforced practices of gender difference that

shape, and are reproduced in the practice of, daily life. These structures of difference

deeply circumscribe women’s ability to take advantage of any equal opportunities

that come their way. Clearly, as I argue in the book, equality or difference presents

feminists with an impossible choice. This choice cannot be properly understood, let

alone overcome, unless we first grasp that it arises within the framework of the social

question. Here, women’s claims to equality cannot be heard as political claims unless

they are uttered in the language of the social, that is, the betterment of society. As

I hope to have shown in the book, this language takes for granted that it is women

qua women (e.g., their femininity) who, if admitted to the full rights of citizenship,

will make society better. Difference thus turns out to be the condition of women’s

claims to equality. Yet claims to equality always sit uneasy with claims to difference.



And so it is that feminists find themselves caught within the logic of the impossible


Professor Ferree also rightly reminds us that it is crucial for feminists to recall

the origins of their movement in grassroots politics. The excessively state-centered

American feminism that focuses almost exclusively on individual rights does not

properly recognize that rights are meaningless unless people are in a position to

exercise them. As I argue in the book, rights need to be part of a practice of freedom.

Freedom is not reducible to possession of constitutionally guaranteed rights. Rights

must be claimed, and the act of claiming them is a form of world-building: it

produces horizontal political relations among the people who claim rights, relations

that go beyond the mere fact of having gained a right itself. These relations go

beyond the outcome of any struggle for rights, the fact of having gained or not

gained a right itself. We lose track of this world-building when we think about

politics in instrumental (means-ends) terms.

Let me now turn to Andreas Glaeser’s comments. I appreciate Professor Glaeser’s

reading of my book, especially his understanding of it as a form of theorie ´


This form of writing is enabled by the many feminist theorists who came before

me and who set out the conditions of my own theoretical practice. They did so

in a way that was enabling, not determining. I say this as way of approaching

Professor Glaeser’s central critical concern, namely, how the book’s “celebration of

radical new-ness, its account of creativity is preempting a deeper reflection on the

institutional sources of creative action.”

I can see how one might read my book as making an argument for spontaneity, but

celebrating radical newness as such was not my concern. For one thing, spontaneity

is not necessarily political—one can be spontaneous all by oneself—and that is

why Arendt emphasized that political freedom, though it involves the capacity to

begin anew, is not synonymous with spontaneity. For another thing, newness is not

a good in itself. Totalitarianism was new, but hardly something to celebrate. My

concern, then, was not to extol the value of the new but to question the means-

ends conception of politics, according to which whatever new things do come into

the world can be predicted in advance of action. Tied to the idea of theory as

the guide to praxis, this way of thinking about the new denies the unbounded and

unpredictable character of action, that is, as I said above, that we simply cannot

foretell or control the consequences of our action. This does not mean we have no

responsibility, or that we can never say with some probability the effects of certain

actions. It just means that once we act politically, we are no longer in control of

how our actions will be taken up by others. Hence, Arendt, who is often misread

as herself celebrating action at the expense of everything else, recognized that action

can be dangerous and unpredictable.

I think Glaeser is right to say that I do not focus much on the institutional

bases of freedom as action. That may be because my central concern was with the

ways in which action itself creates those institutional bases. This is what I called

world-building, though I would resist reducing world-building to the creation of

institutions as they are commonly understood. In the book I discuss the practice

of freedom as the creation of an objective and subjective “worldly in-between,” to

borrow Arendt’s phrase, which comes into existence through action. And though

action certainly does create networks of relations that are objective and that we

might want to count as institutional in the conventional sense, action also creates

an intangible “web of human relationships” that “is no less real than the things we

visibly have in common,” as Arendt observes.



Following Arendt, I call feminists’ attention to this intangible element of world-

building because I want us to start thinking not only about action but also institu-

tions in noninstrumentalist terms, that is, terms that foreground the radical claim to

freedom and the ability to begin anew. The institutionalization of freedom, for ex-

ample, is clearly at stake in revolutionary action as Arendt understands it. But since

freedom is a practice rather than a substance or something that can be encoded

in law, the preservation of such institutions themselves depends on action and thus

in some very important sense on their continual reinvention through such action.

To emphasize the new is not to underestimate the importance of institutions, but

to place action and the practice of freedom at the very heart of their creation and

maintenance. Of course institutions, like rights, can exist in the absence of citizen

action, but then they are more appropriately described as bureaucracy or the rule of

no one.

George Steinmetz, too, reads my book as celebrating spontaneity as a good in

itself and thereby losing track of its conditions. “What is gained by defining a form

of action that is completely undetermined?” he asks, wondering whether this does

not lead me down the perilous road of decisionism. Once again, my response is not

to protest exactly—if two of your readers pick out the same problem, then perhaps

there is a problem—but to take this opportunity to clarify my position.

Clearly, Steinmetz is not advocating a deterministic conception of action, for that

would obliterate human freedom. The question, then, becomes how to talk about

the novelty of action without becoming entangled in the endless discussions of free

will versus determinism that have dominated the understanding of action in the

Western tradition. In The Human Condition, Arendt argued that human beings are

“conditioned” beings, but being conditioned is very different from being determined.

They are conditioned because everything they come into contact with becomes a

condition of their existence. The point, then, is not to talk about human action as

if it had no conditions, but only to insist that those conditions do not determine it.

To suggest that only actions that are wholly unconditioned are free is at the heart

of the idea of freedom as sovereignty, refuted by Arendt and myself, according to

which worldly things and other people themselves are a hindrance to one’s freedom.

Because I am in no way arguing that action is wholly undetermined in the sense

of a pure act of free will, I would not want to find myself in the company of

decisionists or the left avant-garde, which is where Steinmetz suggests I might be

placed. Decisionism advances the idea that action is based on an ungrounded act of

will. Although I agree that action cannot be rationally grounded—as Wittgenstein

argued, at a certain point our reasons run out, this is what we do—I strongly disagree

with the notion of will that underwrites decisionism. I see myself as developing, in

the spirit of Arendt, an account of action that breaks with the philosophy of the

will, which has more or less dominated modern political and feminist theory. There

is no way to move from the idea of the will as free (which is to say, sovereign) to

the idea of membership in a democratic community. For the freedom of the will, as

Nietzsche recognized, is irreducibly bound to the logic of obedience and command:

“What is called ‘freedom of the will’ is essentially a passionate superiority toward

someone who must obey. ‘I am free’; ‘he must obey’—the consciousness of this is

the very willing.” The will, in short, is bound up with an understanding of politics

as rule over others.

I want to thank Professors Ferree, Glaeser, and Steinmetz for their critical