and Void: Looking Back at Sartre and Beauvoir
Max Deutscher is emeritus professor of philosophy in the Division of Society, Culture, Media, and Philosophy at Macquarie University (Sidney, Australia). He is the author of Subjecting and Objecting: An Essay in Objectivity (1984) and has edited the volume Michèle LeDoeuff: Operative Philosophy and Imaginary (2001).
Deutscher’s latest publication, Genre and Void: Looking Back at Sartre and Beauvoir (2003) expands on his previous work. Bringing to bear a phenomenological approach on metaphysics, Deutscher tackles present-day social concerns such as the construction of gender identity, the conflict between individualism and social commitment and the effects of technology on our everyday lives. To do this, the author reclaims the existentialist work of Sartre and Beauvoir—in particular, Being and Nothingness (1943) and The Second Sex (1949)—arguing that
By pointing to the wide range of issues, “the diverse genres of discourse” [p. 254], that both existentialist writers focused on, this essay aims to show their pertinence in the current cultural debate between neo-modernists and post-modernists. Sartre and Beauvoir thus become examples of the necessary polyphony of philosophical discourse if abstract thought is to be of any actual consequence to material reality.
In order to make effective his notion of the interrelation of philosophical thought with social dynamics, Deutscher coins the concept of “operative phenomenology.” Thus, for the author, phenomenology should not be reduced to the description of the world as experienced by a passive subject. Rather, it should involve the subsequent enactment of the transforming role of the subject on his/her “material” surroundings. In order to show the viability of his project, Deutscher traces the influence of Descartes, Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger on Sartre’s description of social experience as entirely solipsistic. As the latter philosopher would have it, subjects “encounter the Other” but “do not constitute him” [p. xx]. Hence, any real communication is on principle an impossibility.
Interestingly, Deutscher draws on LeDoeuff to show how Sartre theoretically posits his subject as neuter in terms of gender but really endows it with a masculine "default" position. Therefore, his construction of the subject as masculine shaper of the Other positions the woman as passive object. It thus stands to reason that some aspects of Sartre’s thoughts were sexually biased. However, as Deutscher points out, this only highlights the fact that
Hence, Sartre’s sexual bias proves that philosophy itself is a product of the social imaginary—a fact which reinforces the dialectic between social reality and abstract thought.
To further make his point, Deutscher analyzes Beauvoir’s gendered reading of Sartre’s phenomenological tenets in her seminal work The Second Sex (1949). Beauvoir’s work reveals the faultline inherent to phenomenological existentialist discourse. Her well-known statement that “one is not born a woman” summarizes her rejection of the objectified position that Sartre allotted the female in his writings. In arguing that becoming a woman is a matter of development, she brings to the fore the distinction between biological sex and gender (which is socially constructed). As Deutscher explains, for Beauvoir, phenomenological observation of relations between men and women can be problematic due to the fact that “women are described in their peculiarities of differing from men” [p. 16]. Thus, not humanity but man becomes the neuter subject through whose gaze the world is observed and recorded. In other words, texts which up to the publication of Beauvoir’s essay had been read as descriptive were shown to be, in fact, constructions of subjective experience.
The relevance of sexual issues in existentialist works is thus shifted from a peripheral position to a central one by Deutscher. The author re-assesses the continuing value of Sartre and Beauvoir’s gender dialectic in the light of the present tension between those who would defend identity politics and those who argue for a more “liberating” post-modernist deconstruction:
To exemplify the relevance of existentialist ideas for contemporary schools of thought, Deutscher discusses at length how existentialist constructions of gendered subjectivity can be traced in the work of contemporary theorists such as Luce Irigaray. Interestingly, the author shows how Irigaray draws on Beauvoir when she “analyses the way in which the fabrication of a "neutered" subject has displaced or suffocated the sense of difference that inspires creative thought and feeling” [p. xxiv]. Therefore, Irigaray’s idea that the language of thought systems, such as philosophy, science or religion, has to be modified to enact a social change is based on the phenomenological perception of the falsity of female “otherness.” Moreover, Deutscher also discusses how the origins of post-modernist notions of the fluidity of gendered and/or sexual identities, which have been brought to the fore in recent years by queer theorists such as Judith Butler, can be traced in the existentialist preoccupations of the writers of the early twentieth century.
The continuity which Deutscher establishes between Sartre and Beauvoir’s writings and the phenomenological studies produced from the late twentieth century to the present provides contemporary philosophy with a brand new assessment of these theorists’ contributions to philosophical history. Unfortunately, existentialism has gradually fallen into oblivion with the advent of new schools of thought; yet, many of its preoccupations are still relevant to contemporary thinkers. Genre and Void: Looking Back at Sartre and Beauvoir highlights the points of connection between present-day (de)construction of identity politics and existentialist concerns about the place and/or role of the subject in the world. Thus, the volume comes to fill a gap between modern and post-modern concerns and, in that sense, proves to be a refreshing and insightful reading.