Communitarians and Feminists – the Case of Narrative Identity

  • Lois McNayEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Springer Reference Geisteswissenschaften book series (SPREFGEIST)


Examining the relevance of communitarian thought for feminist theory, this essay considers the idea of narrative identity in certain types of communitarianism and feminism. It claims that the particular way in which the idea of narrative identity is elaborated raises difficulties for a feminist understanding of gender identity. The syncretic and over generalised idea of narrative identity derived from communitarian thought does not adequately grasp important aspects of the ways in which gender inequalities are constructed.


Feminismus Kommunitarismus Narration Gender Identität Seyla Benhabib 

1 Introduction

I have been asked to consider the relevance of communitarian thought for feminist theory. There has already been a fair amount of feminist work in this area which focuses on the analytical force of the concept of community for an understanding of the way in which gender inequalities are constructed (Benhabib 1992, pp. 68–88; Frazer and Lacey 1993; Young 1990, pp. 226–256). Rather than go over precisely the same ground, I will consider the idea of narrative identity, which, at the microcosmic level, seems to raise similar issues as those invoked by the idea of community. The idea of narrative identity is central to certain types of communitarianism and feminism; it has been used, in both strands of thought, to mediate an antinomy between the atomised and pre–social concepts of the individual that prevail in liberal thought and the fragmented and contingent subject of post-Nietzschean constructivism. This affinity has recently been underlined by Habermasian feminists such as Selya Benhabib and Maria Pia Lara who attempt to integrate a concept of narrative identity, explicitly drawn from communitarian thought, into the idea of communicative ethics in order to soften its proceduralism and, in particular, to introduce a greater sensitivity to the issue of gender difference. In considering this convergence of feminist and communitarian thought, I claim that the particular way in which the idea of narrative identity is elaborated raises difficulties for a feminist understanding of gender identity. My argument is that the syncretic and over generalized idea of narrative identity derived from communitarian thought does not adequately grasp important aspects of the ways in which gender inequalities are constructed. There are difficulties at three levels. First, a syncretic and over-extended understanding of narrative underestimates the ways in which experience may be non–narratable and, as a consequence, also underestimates the dislocations and contradictions within gender identity. Second, narrative is tacitly imputed a ‘redemptive’ or authentic status which significantly underplays its ideological function as a mode of symbolic domination. Third, the idea of narrative and the associated ideas of practice and community privilege a form of immediate co-presence, which does not grasp the systemic and abstract levels at which gender inequalities are maintained in late capitalist society. The effects of these oversights is to render gender oppression invisible.

It is apparent from what I have said that I am not a political theorist and will not be considering the normative sense in which communitarians and feminists deploy the idea of narrative. Rather my discussion focuses on the sociological implications of understanding identity as having a narrative structure for, as Alistair MacIntyre remarks: “every moral philosophy has some particular sociology as its counterpart” (MacIntyre 1981, p. 225). My argument is that, in the elaboration of the idea of narrative identity, there is a problematic elision between social ontology and political advocacy that cannot be overlooked. The redemptive force that the idea of narrative is invested with, on a normative level, retroactively influences the understanding of the role narratives play in social life. The stress on the apparent inherent unity and meaningfulness of narrative structures underplays some of their more negative aspects and, as a result, disregards the complexity of identity and the role narratives play in sustaining relations of domination.

2 Affinities Between Communitarianism and Feminism

There is a fundamental affinity between the feminist critique of the masculinist subject of classical thought and the communitarian critique of the mono– logical subject of liberalism. Both strands of thought attempt to develop an understanding of the subject situated between the monological and pre–social concepts – or what Habermas has called, the ‘philosophy of consciousness’ – that prevail in liberal thought, on the one side, and, on the other, the paradigm of dispersal and contingency that dominates in post–Nietzschean thought. This shared concern has led feminists and communitarians to elaborate certain, similar themes: the embedded and fundamentally intersubjective nature of subjectivity; the artificial nature of the public – private distinction; and an idea of politics and ethics formulated from the perspective of the concrete rather than the general other (Frazer and Lacey 1993, pp. 117–129).

The concept of narrative identity is deployed in connection with the first theme, that is, as part of an elaboration of the embedded and intersubjective nature of subjectivity. The concept of narrative identity shares with post–structural theory the presumption that identity is discursively constructed and, hence, culturally and historically variable. However, the idea of narrative configuration circumvents the post–structural fragmentation of the subject, where self is seen as a series of unconnected episodes, and it therefore yields stronger notions of intention, reflexivity and agency. In other words, both the liberal and post–Nietzschean paradigms fail to give an adequate account of the coherence of the self. For liberals, an unproblematic idea of unity is antecedently attributed to individuals. Whereas, post–structuralism views the unified subject as an exogenously imposed discursive effect, an idea which rests on an impoverished account of the continuity of self through time, of the different levels at which this continuity is maintained and of the relation between the coherent self and action. Against this, the idea of narrative recognises that a degree of coherence is an operative necessity of selfhood but is in no sense a pre–social characteristic. In short, the narrative view of the self bypasses the antinomy of essentialism versus fragmentation by suggesting that the self has unity, but it is a dynamic unity, which attempts to integrate permanence in time with its contrary, namely diversity, variability, discontinuity and instability. As well as the notion of dynamic coherence, the idea of narrative is also explicitly relational, that is, it draws attention to the irredeemably intersubjective nature of identity. To use a phrase of Jessica Benjamin’s, the “shadow” cast by the other subject permanently prevents closure, or the achievement of an enclosed, autarkic sense of self (Benjamin 1998). For example, even apparently solitary acts of memory and recall can only be carried out from within the temporal horizon of the present which itself is enmeshed within webs of intersubjective relations: “narratives cannot have closure precisely because they are always aspects of the narratives of others” (Benhabib 1999, p. 348).

With this dynamic and relational idea of narrative in mind feminists, such as Selya Benhabib and Maria Pia Lara have tried to integrate the concept into the idea of communicative ethics to overcome the problems of rationalism and proceduralism that limit Habermas’ thought (Meehan 1995; Lara 1998). In her article “Sexual Difference and Collective Identities – The New Global Constellation”, Benhabib claims that the idea of narrative provides the means of introducing the issue of difference into a communicative ethics by furnishing more nuanced notions of discourse as praxis, of intersubjectivity and of agency. Habermas does not explicitly connect communicative competence with the narrative structure of self, so instead Benhabib draws upon the work of Charles Taylor on intention and dialogically constructed narrative identity. Benhabib’s turn to a communitarian account of narrative is somewhat surprising because, like Habermas, she asserts that feminist and other forms of social critique necessarily rest on ideal-typical reconstruction which the communitarian emphasis on the inescapable embeddedness of all knowledge within tradition forecloses.

Benhabib argues that it is erroneous to insist upon the ineluctably situated nature of social critique because the idea that the view from nowhere be replaced by the view from somewhere assumes that the latter is a relatively unified, self-evident and discrete body of knowledge. This hermeneutic monism overlooks the extent to which knowledge is interwoven with complex social practices and is, therefore, fragmented, discontinuous and sometimes contradictory. Furthermore, an unqualified insistence on the situated nature of critique assumes that the constitutive norms of a given culture are sufficient to enable one to exercise criticism in the name of a desirable future. All social criticism necessarily assumes a degree of distantiation from everyday certitudes – even if these are to be reaffirmed at a higher level of analysis and justification. In short, then, the communitarian insistence on the embedded nature of understanding brings no exemption from the responsibility of normative justification lest it lead to a “retreat from utopia” which deprives feminism of a regulative principle of hope (Benhabib 1992, pp. 226–230).

Despite these criticisms, however, Benhabib uses the communitarian idea of the narrative self interpretation to modify the disembedded and disembodied idea of the subject which underlies Habermas’ theory of communicative ethics. To be a self is the result of being thrown into (in the Heideggerian sense of Geworfenheit) and inserting oneself into what Taylor labels “webs of interlocution”, ranging from familial micro-narratives through to macro-narratives of gender and nation. The individual’s sense of self is established through an interweaving of these multiple narrative strands, which are historically and culturally specific. Narrative codes are neither freely chosen, nor, however, are they fully determining in the sense that they never exhaust the capacity to “initiate new actions and new sentences in conversation” (Benhabib 1999, p. 345). As Alisdair MacInytre puts it: “we are never more […] than co-authors of our own narratives […] We enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making” (MacIntyre 1981, p. 213).

Benhabib differs from Taylor in rejecting his assertion that narrative identities are constructed, explicitly or implicitly, around strong evaluative commitments to certain cultural values and norms. Indeed, in Taylor’s view, individuals who lack these evaluative commitments also lack the essential conditions of what Taylor refers to as “integral, that is, undamaged human personhood” (Taylor 1989, p. 27). Benhabib argues that Taylor’s assertion of strong qualitative discriminations as constitutive of personhood confuses the conditions of possible human agency with a strong concept of moral integrity. The conditions of modern life are such that it is possible to live a life not within the horizons of strong evaluations and evaluative commitments. Benhabib concludes that it is necessary to think of the continuity of the self through time not as commitment to a specific set of evaluative goods, but as the capacity to take and adapt an attitude towards such goods. This hold true “even if […] this attitude means non-commitment” (Benhabib 1999, p. 346). In other words, selfhood is better understood in terms of second-order attitudes that the self has towards making first-order commitments. In terms of narrative identity, it is not what the story is about that matters but rather “one’s ability to keep telling a story about who one is that makes sense to oneself and to others” (Benhabib 1999, p. 347). The self is not defined by the content of the narrative but by its narratability. This is evident in the case of traumatic amnesia where although the individual has lost her particular story, “she nonetheless has no doubt about being a narratable self; or rather she has not forgotten at all that narratability-the self’s unreflective sense […] for recalling itself-belongs to the existent” (Cavarero 2000, pp. 36–37).

Conceptualising the subject in narrative terms undoubtedly overcomes limitations in the liberal and post-Nietzschean conceptions of the subject. I have argued elsewhere that it is crucial for overcoming the flattening out of the self that is an effect of post-structural theory and which prevents feminists and others who draw on this work from developing adequate accounts of agency (McNay 2000). Yet, despite its undeniable conceptual force, I now argue that the specific way in which the idea of narrative has been developed by communitarian thinkers has several limitations with regard to understanding questions of gender identity and inequality and thus presents Benhabib with problems that she does not fully consider. Indeed, I think that she replicates these problems elsewhere in her work but there is not space to consider that here. The limitations that I discuss are connected to the slippage that occurs between the sociological idea of narrative and narrative as an ethical ideal. I begin by arguing that the synthesising force of the idea of narrative structures is overestimated and therefore that the difficulties that individuals encounter in maintaining coherent narratives about the self are disregarded.

3 Narrative Synthesis

In asserting the centrality of narrative to an understanding of the subject, it is important to ensure that it does not become a privileged term, which encompasses all aspects of experience and selfhood. MacIntyre and other communitarians such as Taylor reject the Sartrean and also the post-structural view, that is to say that narratives are false constructs. For Sartre, narratives are falsifications in so far as the whole pattern of a story, the coherence of its events, is built on a false premise of retrospection, for it is only in retrospect that we can recognise events to be significant or irrelevant and contingent. The nature of living is, therefore, opposite to that of narrative fiction since when we are acting we never know the outcome, we are unsure of its effects and we ignore what is happening elsewhere. While there are certainly problems with this rather unnuanced view of narrative as a false construct, communitarians seem to fall into a countervailing simplification by proposing a syncretic notion of narrative as an exhaustive description of the mechanisms of selfhood. To be sure, communitarians refer to the unfinished and unpredictable quality of narratives; stories about the self always have to be reconfigured in order to accommodate the flux of events and the narratives of others, which unsettle self-understanding, and spoil attempts to mastermind one’s own narrative (MacIntyre 1981, p. 214; Benhabib 1999, p. 347). Yet, the extent to which the unfinished quality of narratives relates to contradictions and complexities in social life is not adequately considered and an exaggeratedly synthetic model of narrative prevails. MacIntyre, for example, approvingly quotes Barbara Hardy who says “we dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticise, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative” (MacIntyre 1981, p. 211). While narrative is certainly a fundamental mode in which experience is rendered meaningful, care has to be taken not to elide altogether the distinction between narrative and lived experience. As Michael Bell puts it in his critique of MacIntyre: “narrative has to be a different kind of thing from lived temporality or there is no point in drawing any analogy between them. The meaningfulness of the comparison depends on an implicit recognition of this difference even while it is being denied” (Bell 1987, p. 174). Arguably, by conflating the gap between lived experience and narrative structure, communitarians and feminist Habermasians rely on an excessively syncretic notion of narrative, which underplays the complexities of social identity losing any sense of the differentiation and discontinuities between different levels of subjectivity.

There are many ways of approaching this issue of the ways in which certain experiences permanently elude narrative and block the formation of meaningful self-understanding. For example, in Paul Ricœur’s view, although narrative is the privileged medium through which phenomenological time is represented, it is not the only medium of temporal experience. Binding the concept of time too closely to that of narrative implies that “the subject would be the master of meaning, that it would hold within the narrative all the meanings that time is capable of assuming” (Ricœur 1998, p. 88). In Ricœur’s view, narrative necessarily fails in its mediation of fundamental temporal contradictions, resulting in the multiplication of aporia and the breakdown of its own attempts to impose temporal synthesis. One such temporal contradiction appears as the mediation of different levels of subjectivity – in Ricœur’s terms idem and ipseity, which can be crudely understood as the difference between embodied identity which works upon the principal of similitude as sameness and selfhood where similitude is understood as continuity through time. Ricœur emphasises that the resolution effected by narrative between these different levels of identity as idem and ipse is only fleeting and fragile and, indeed, may break down altogether in the face of extreme disjunction between the two levels. For example, in the face of traumatic bodily experiences such as rape, trauma, violation, the sense of self can collapse almost entirely. Another example of this disjunction between embodied identity and selfhood can be drawn from the fifth chapter of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin-White Masks where he describes how being sealed into the crushing object-hood of blackness by the gaze of the colonial oppressor is internalised in the form of confusion and anger. The disjunction between the fact of his blackness and his self-understanding locks him into an infernal circle, an oscillation between shame and rage, which prevents him establishing an integral sense self. It could be replied that the kinds of experience that elude narrative synthesis are limit cases and do not represent the normal mechanisms of establishing selfhood. According to Benhabib, it is only when an individual is “delusional and violent or completely rigid and fragmented” that the ability to narrate proximity and distance, intimacy and alienation is lost (Benhabib 1999, p. 352). Yet, writers such as Galen Strawson, for example, draw attention to a mundane type of disassociation where experience perpetually resists incorporation into a meaningful self-narrative. Strawson draws a distinction between narrative and episodic personalities, the latter being a type who is unable to incorporate certain kinds of experience into a meaningful account of the self (Strawson 1997; WHitebook 1995, p. 89; Coole 1996, p. 239; Flax 1993, p. 66). This differentiated idea of the self as constituted on various levels, the relations between which are not necessarily straightforward is missing in communitarian thought, which seems to rely on a relatively uncomplicated notion of socialisation. Certainly MacIntyre alludes to dissonances within identity when he states that “the fact that the self has to find its moral identity in and through its membership in communities […] does not entail that the self has to accept the moral limitations of the particularity of those forms of community” (MacIntyre 1981, p. 221).

Yet, presenting the confusion and conflict of identity described by Fanon in terms of the acceptance or rejection of a role has problematic implications of voluntarism. Furthermore, the socialisation model of selfhood that communitarians use does not provide a clear account of the basis from which a critical awareness of one’s role might emerge. I will return to this point later. If there are problems with overextending the idea of narrative as the prime modality of experience, so there are also difficulties with emphasising unduly the inherent meaningfulness of narratives. In his work on narrative and memory, Laurence Kirmayer considers how narrative is not just the conveyor of structure, smoothing, and holding experience as he puts it, but that it can also create crevasses, ruptures, emptiness and deep wells of non-being (Kirmayer 1996). For example, the construction of therapeutic narratives to help individuals overcome traumatic events may promote the alienation of families, over-simplify problems with complex origins and ultimately disempower those it aims to help by institutionalising the position of victim. This raises a further problem with the imputed syncretic function of narrative namely that it underplays the mismatch that may exist between the different narratives that constitute identity. For example, the political gains conferred by a victim identity such as a trauma survivor are often accessible only through expert discourses, which have their own agendas and are themselves instruments of power. By their very nature, such discourses deal in causes rather than meanings, events rather than persons, instances rather than entire lives. Reinscribing personal discourses can accentuate the gulf that exists between the narrative possibilities afforded by notions of personhood, kinship and morality, on the one hand and the arid language of bureaucracy and biopolitics, on the other. This is not to retreat to a post-structuralist emphasis on dispersion – what Laclau and Mouffe call an essentialism of the elements – but it is to problematize the continuous and organic relation between experience and different modes of narrative configuration. For example, MacIntyre speaks of the problem of multiple identities in terms of the idea of nested identities the holistic implications of which imply continuity rather than conflict between different narratives that may structure an individuals life. Yet, a common feminist argument is that, for many women, there is a fundamental lack of congruity between different social roles, for example Nancy Fraser and Carole Pateman both point out that the idea of citizenship is tacitly masculine and that many women do not occupy this role easily: “this division between male protectors and female protected introduces […] dissonance into women’s relation to citizenship” (Fraser 1989, p. 44). These dissonances are not simply conceptual but attest to forms of exclusion and oppression.

These feminist arguments indicate that the complexities of memory and experience that may prevent the construction of coherent narrative identity are not simply psychological issues but raises issues of power, ideology and exclusion. The passage from experience to narrative involves not just a transition from flux to coherence but also a process wherein certain themes or persons are silenced, constituted, displaced, controlled, and modified. Furthermore, this process of exclusion can take place on a pre-reflexive level. As Foucault remarks: “power relations can materially penetrate the body in depth, without depending even on the mediation of the subject’s own representations. If power takes hold on the body, this isn’t through its having first to be interiorised in people’s consciousnesses” (Foucault 1980, p. 131). A powerful illustration of this is provided by Gayatri Spivak’s much cited essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’ on the practice of sati (the self-immolation of widows) in early nineteen century Bengal. Here Spivak shows how the campaign by the British to abolish widow sacrifice is completely dominated by the two male discourses of paternalist colonialism and a resistant, patriarchal Hinduism. Although, in a literal sense, the subaltern can speak, Spivak’s point is that there is no legitimate narrative position in which the widow’s experience can be expressed: “the subaltern as female cannot be heard or read” (Spivak 1988, p. 308). Spivak relates the widow’s silence to a model of social indirection, understood as the dislocation of structures of representation that occurs with the mediation of experience through the abstract, impersonal structures of globalised capital. This means that individuals are often unable to fully comprehend or speak of the nature of their oppression. The passage from rendering visible abstract structures of exploitation to rendering vocal the individual is far from straight forward in as much the relation between the two levels of experience is often highly mediated and dislocated. As Spivak puts it: “On the other side of the international division of labour, the subject cannot know and speak the text of female exploitation” (Spivak 1988, p. 288).

4 Narrative, Power and Ideology

It is not that communitarians do not have a theory of power. MacIntyre, for example, speaks of the external goods of money, power and status that are the media through which institutions operate and which can distort practices and their internal goods. In the final analysis, however, the overemphasis on the syncretic power of narrative arises because the analysis of narrative structures is detached from the analysis of power relations. This brings me to my second point which is that communitarian thought does not consider sufficiently the central role that narratives play in forms of ideological domination or what Bourdieu calls symbolic violence. Instead, narrative structures are implicitly depoliticised by being imputed a tacitly authentic and redemptive status. Narrative is one of the principal modes through which powerful ideologies ranging from ideas of nation to those of romantic love are transmitted. Social integration is achieved through the repetition and reinforcement of the narratives and chronicles through which a given community constructs and maintains its origins and identity (Ricœur 1991, p. 196). For example, feminists such as Teresa de Lauretis have pointed out, how narrative is a central tool in seducing women into identifying with the objectified feminine position of patriarchal symbolism (de Lauretis 1984). As Paul Ricœur has shown, the ideological function of narrative need not be understood in the simplistic terms of deception or dissimulation. Certainly, ideology operating through the medium of narrative clearly has a distortive function evident in the “simplification, schematisation, stereotyping and ritualization” of its forms (Ricœur 1991, p. 182). However, the idea that these distortions are illusory obscures the extent to which ideology can only be effective because it in some way connects to social life. For Ricœur, this connection is possible because of the inherently symbolic or pre-interpreted nature of experience: “unless social life has a symbolic structure, there is no way to understand how […] reality can become an idea or how real life can produce illusions; these would all be simply mystical and incomprehensible events” (Ricœur 1986, p. 8). Ideology then must be understood as having integrative as well as dominatory or “pathological” effects; it reinforces social identity, both individual and collective, through a process of ‘iconic augmentation’ that draws on the pre-interpreted elements of social life and reconfigures them into new symbolic forms. It follows then that narrative identities interweave the ideological and the non-ideological, that they are an “unstable mixture of fabulation and actual experience” (Ricœur 1992, p. 162).

Ricœur’s idea of ideology has implications for the idea of narrative identity in so far as self-recognition is always mediated through ideologies. The idea of ideologies as open systems combined with that of the inherently symbolic nature of experience means that there can be neither narratives of authentic experience, on the one side, nor can there be pure ideological narratives, on the other. The narrativising of experiences whilst essential to the establishment of submerged identities never takes place in isolation from pre-given ideological forms. For example, ideological images may momentarily stabilise meanings allowing individuals to identify with or against persons or situations. This ambivalence is reflected in feminist debates about the extent to which the exaggerated femininity of certain female icons, such as Madonna, is instrumental in promoting a more empowered attitude amongst young women or whether it simply reaffirms orthodox and damaging views of femininity (Shwichtenberg 1993). For a narrative to be meaningful and to acquire some degree of social authority, it must draw to some extent on culturally dominant discourses of truth-telling, including ideologies. It is only through this process of autonomisation that a given narrative transcends relevance to its initial situation (Ricœur 1991, p. 153–154).

This idea that narratives of the self necessarily involve ideological elements complicates the rather unqualified ‘redemptive’ inflection with which the idea of narrative is tacitly invested by communitarians. Who is to say that the configuration of life into a coherent narrative – in the sense that MacIntyre intends in his idea of a narrative quest – may actually be based on a form of self-reification rather than self-understanding? In other words, the idea of self-reflexivity that is often unproblematically associated with narrative identity is complicated by the recognition of the presence therein of an irreducible ideological substrate. For example, as Adrienne Cavarero points out, the spontaneous experience of memory within narrative is not the same as the reflexive structure, which constitutes autonomous subjects. Not all memory takes the form of an active process of remembering, it can also take the form of involuntary recall or an unreflecting knowledge of a sense of self (Cavarero 2000, p. 34). The narrative reconfiguration of past experience may be strongly driven by a desire to reassert the familiar which, in fact, displaces the subject-object structure of reflexivity. This drive to maintain an “everyday certainty of the self” may reinforce an irreflexive unity of the self – analogous to Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus – as much as contribute to a critical self-awareness (Cavarero 2000, p. 43).

This raises the problem mentioned earlier of the degree to which the communitarian model of socialisation does not provide an adequate account of how critical consciousness might arise with respect to oppressive narrative identities. This is not to rehearse the well-known and misplaced criticism that communitarian thought is inherently conservative because of the stress it places on tradition. MacIntyre, for example, states that traditions are frequently challenged and that if the tradition is not robust enough then it should rightly cede to new practices and traditions. The problem with this is that, not all oppressive practices and traditions are accompanied by visible conflict. Indeed, according to Marx, it is precisely the job of ideology to conceal the contradictions of oppression by naturalising the social order and by ensuring a form of coerced identification or complicity with one’s own oppression. Where sexism is a feature of the prevailing culture, it cannot be assumed that a degree of conflict or innovation sufficient to reverse women’s exclusion will be present. Many aspects of the oppression of women – such as the gender division of labour – are deeply embedded and indeed are naturalised through reference to innate differences between the sexes. The communitarian idea of socialisation provides no way of explaining how these latent and seemingly inevitable features of gender oppression can be identified as such in order to be challenged. As Elizabeth Frazer and Nicola Lacey observe: “Within a communitarian framework, who is to say that a community with gender segregation and hierarchy in its labour market is not preferable to one without such a hierarchy, and how are they going to get to the stage of saying it?” (Frazer and Lacey 1993, p. 151). In other words, the idea of narrative identity has to be reattached to an analysis of power relations.

5 Narrative and the Invisibility of Gender

The preceding discussion about the way in which narrative is detached from an analysis of power relations brings me to my final point, which is about the inadequacy of the concept of narrative for capturing the systemic ways in which gender inequalities are maintained. Undoubtedly, the idea of narrative may provide a powerful way of thinking through aspects of subjectivity and agency but its emphasis on issues of identity and recognition occludes an understanding of the structural and institutional dimensions of gender oppression. The idea of narrative identity remains within the realm of a politics of recognition but cannot grasp the material aspects to gender inequality and, in this way, it renders many aspects of gender oppression invisible. The idea of narrative identity remains closely wedded to ideas of community as a co-presence of subjects or as face-to-face relations and in this stress on immediacy it misses the temporally and spatially distantiated ways in which gender inequalities are reproduced. In an era of increasingly formal equality, gender oppression is not a unified phenomenon, which necessarily always manifests itself through explicit discrimination. As feminists like Carol Brown and Sylvia Walby have pointed out, there has been a shift in the last hundred odd years from private to public patriarchy (Brown 1981; Walby 1990). Gender inequalities are no longer perpetuated so much through arbitrary and direct sanctions confining women to the domestic sphere but through indirect forms of economic exploitation and state inertia. These indirect and impersonal forms of structural discrimination render gender inequality less visible because formal equality between men and women at the level of civil and social freedoms appears to be maintained.

The distinction between private and public patriarchy is analogous to a distinction made by Iris Marion Young between oppression and domination. Domination refers to constraints upon oppressed groups to follow rules set by other, whereas oppression refers to inequalities maintained at a structural and non intentional level where “an oppressed group need not have a correlate oppressing group” (Young 1990, p. 41). If we apply this distinction to the ideas of narrative and communities, we can see that while these ideas might be able to identify forms of gender domination in terms of explicit patriarchal sanctions, they do not so readily capture types of systemic and impersonal gender oppression associated with public patriarchy. In short, the central role accorded to narrative as an organising structure for the practices that constitute different traditions perpetuates a certain culturalist emphasis that by viewing matters of gender through the prism of issues of identity and recognition obscures the structural and systemic level at which gender inequality is perpetuated and, ultimately, renders this inequality invisible (Ray and Sayer 1999).

A powerful example of this disjunction between a culturalist and materialist understanding of gender oppression is provided by Pierre Bourdieu’s discussion, in “Pascalian Meditations”, on the experience of hope. Bourdieu considers the ways in which power relations overdetermine the experience of hope and anticipation through the shaping of the agent’s expectations and orientation towards the future: “the practical relation to the forth-coming, in which the experience of time is generated, depends on power and the objective chances it opens” (Bourdieu 2000, p. 231). The phenomenological experience of time is altered by relations of power which operate through an alignment of the subjective structure of hopes and expectations with the objective structure of probabilities. In other words, there is a tendency for hope to increase proportionally with social power, which enables an agent to manipulate the potentialities of the present in order to realise some future project. Or conversely, levels of resignation are inversely proportional to class position (Bourdieu 2000, p. 228). Thus the most oppressed groups in society often seem to oscillate between fantasy and surrender which reflects how, below a certain threshold of objective chances, the strategic and anticipatory disposition diminishes. Instead, a generalised and lasting disorganisation of behaviour and thought prevails which is linked to the disappearance of any coherent vision of the future or to the establishment of any sustained and coherent narrative of the self (Bourdieu 2000, p. 221). Bourdieu goes on to argue, however, that systemic tendencies towards social complexity and uncertainty such as increasing occupational insecurity, social mobility and the expansion of higher education lead increasingly to mismatches between expectations and objective chances: “the lack of a future, previously reserved for the ‘wretched of the earth’ is an increasingly widespread, even modal experience” (Bourdieu 2000, p. 234).

This idea of the mismatch between the subjective disposition to hope and objective chances is a powerful way of explaining aspects of gender oppression. For example, Suzanne Franks book, “Having None of It”, documents an increased disparity between young women’s heightened expectations of social equality and the objective reality of continuing gender discrimination (Franks 1999). In the terms of Bourdieu, there is an increasing mismatch, for many women, between expectations and objective probabilities. There are two concluding points I would like to make about the implications of this disjunction with regard to the idea of narrative. First, this disjunction between systemic forms of oppression and the experience of hope is not accessible from within a concept of narrative identity (or the ideas of community, tradition and practice to which it is wedded) which focuses on the phenomenological analysis of social experience without a corresponding analysis of power relations. In other words, placing narrative in the context of power relations gives us a critical perspective on the phenomenological experience of hope helping us to understand the many ways in which hope is fostered and negated, recognised and misrecognised, overdetermined and distorted by impersonal and abstract power relations. Second, and in conclusion, as long as the idea of narrative remains detached from an analysis of underlying power relations, then its use as a normative category seems to be what Nancy’ Fraser has called “an abstract promise” that the social order could be otherwise which does little to explain the material and cultural forces that constitute the uneven phenomenon of gender oppression (Fraser 1995, p. 165).


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Copyright information

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, ein Teil von Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Somerville CollegeOxford UniversityOxfordGroßbritannien

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