Noelle McAfee, Associate Professor of Philosophy
The University of Massachusetts Lowell
Lowell, MA 01854
Tel: (978) 934-3912
Fax: (978) 934-4077
Thinking Pragmatically about Feminism and Politics
The stream of feminist thought flows in multiple rivulets: through the cramped offices of national pro-choice headquarters and through the campaigns of women candidates; it wends through the women's studies departments housed in university basements, through the pages of leading feminist journals, through the lunchtime conversation of women friends, in the first organizing efforts of women in underdeveloped countries, and in the actions of men and women throughout the world trying to change the way things have "always" been. Feminist thought wraps around the problems posed in ethics, in epistemology, in metaphysics, in aesthetics, law, and literature; in the workplace, the doctor's office, and the free clinic; in movements for human rights, for universal health care, for economic development, for sustainability, and for peace. These manifold movements and methods find a common thread in their claim to be feminist, in the fact that they respond by and for women to the problems that plague women. Even with the multiplicity and diversity of women throughout the world, the term feminist signals a common problem to which feminism, in whatever form, answers.
What is this problem? Do we need to even ask this question, since the fact is that women throughout the world are nearly universally differently situated than the other half of the species? In comparison to the men in their midst, women live in more poverty, they toil harder and longer, they shoulder the weight of caring for others, they find their possibilities circumscribed, their esteem diminished. These are facts. But these facts are not the problem: they are the result of some distortion. Something causes these facts to occur.
Feminist thought arises with a diagnosis. Sometimes, it is true, it gives rise to a diagnosis, just at women's consciousness raising groups helped women stumble across the problems that had been so pervasive they had been invisible. But these diagnoses did not get down to the root: they discovered the wilted branches, the dead leaves. Some sickness, some malady, was stunting the tree and making it wither. The question I am asking—what is the problem for women today?—concerns the fundamental malady that results in the constellation of effects named above. What is the problem, politically, that women face and that feminist theory tries to address today? Is it a problem waiting to be identified? Or, as Foucault notes, should we recognize that "we should not imagine that the world presents us with a legible face, leaving us merely to decipher it" (Discourse on Language). How we "decipher" the problem is not a measure of our epistemological abilities as much as it is a measure of our own history and experience. This is an insight indebted to Hegel and his heirs, pragmatist and continental, an insight made explicit in the writings of William James and John Dewey. It is also a measure of our hopes: what we hope might be achieved by the way we pose the question and the kind of action this positing offers up. How we answer the question of what is the problem for women today always suggests a kind of politics suitable for ameliorating it.
In this paper I unpack a suspicion that much feminist thought about politics flows out of a misconception about the nature of the problem, ultimately about the nature of politics and the public sphere. I suspect that the more conventional feminist approaches have a rather flat or narrow conception of politics: as primarily a one-way transmission of power, flowing from those who oppress to those oppressed. Little if anything here is done to conceptualize or problematize the media through which this supposed transmission passes; the media disappear from view and all that is left are actors with either sinister or innocent intentions. Just recall Catherine MacKinnon's claim that on day one men oppressed women and then on day two they set up the stereotypes of femininity, etc., that would uphold and conceal this oppression. In this view, the public sphere is flatly reduced to a unidirectional flow of power. In contrast to this view, in this paper I want to draw out the ways in which actors or subjects are situated in a matrix of signs and symbols, of meaning-making (semiosis), of perspectival interpretation and perception. To do so I use the resources in various semiotic and pragmatist traditions, which have a much richer view of politics and the public sphere as discursive and semiotic processes and arenas. My initial suppositions coincide with those of John Dewey's, that the public creates itself communicatively. From there I have turned to semiotics, developing my own synthesis of Peirce's view and Kristeva's, that the public sphere is a discursive space in which subjectivity, identity, and meaning are created, dispersed, and interpreted. In this second picture of the public world, feminist thought has a task different from the first one: instead of simply "fighting power," feminist practice calls for rethinking how meanings and identities are created in discursive and communicative processes and matrices. In this second view, political thought moves from an agonal toward a more deliberative view of the political public sphere. In short, the model of fighting oppression gives way to thinking about discursively or deliberatively reconstituting the public sphere.
Addressing the Question: What is the problem for women today?
Everything depends upon how we theorize the nature of the problem. Any definition carries with it a concomitant politics. When feminists identify the problem as that of an oppression that can be peeled away, as the effect of an other that can be excommunicated, what we get is a politics of exclusion. This might take the form of separatism, as championed by radical feminists such as Mary Daly. Or it might take the shape of agonistic politics— a politics of struggle—with adherents ranging from Chantal Mouffe to Bonnie Honig and, some argue, Hannah Arendt (though she can be read otherwise as well). By agonistic I mean the view that politics is a struggle over resources, a struggle over who gets what, where, and when, a competitive, aggregative process driven by self-interest. Feminist theorists and practitioners have long succumbed to this view of politics, engaging in the agon in order to garner a more just and equitable distribution of power and resources for women.
Many of the current generation of political theorists grew up in a world in which freedom or resources for one group came at the expense of the liberty and goods of another, and many of these theorists, feminists included, have been, on the whole, even as gains are being made, on the side still struggling. An agonistic lens shows the continuity between first wave feminists who fought for equal rights and second wave feminists who have been fighting for sexual and cultural freedom. Tying them together is the notion that patriarchy, the fathers in power, have found it in their own interests to deny women basic rights and resources. Feminist political struggle, in this view, is a battle to increase women's portion of the political pie. If one looks, one can see this common orientation across the spectrum of feminist approaches: liberal feminists seek more rights; cultural feminists seek greater validation of historically female practices and institutions; socialist feminists seek more access to economic power; and radical feminists want to attack the root of the problem, to undermine patriarchy's project of oppressing women. Some radical feminists call for creating a women's hegemony, a world in which men need not apply, a complete vanquishing of "the enemy."
All these approaches, in one way or another, divide the world between female friend and male foe. Seeing the problem as one of oppression, they see men's and women's interests as antithetical to each others' and hence that any triumph for women will be at men's expense. Flowing out of this analysis, they share the notion that politics is agonal (that is, a matter of struggle) and that agonal politics is democratic when previously excluded or marginalized people, namely women, get entrée into the public arena. This feminist politics sees political struggle as a means toward creating a more democratic society. One French "radical democrat," Chantal Mouffe, writes that, "far from jeopardizing democracy, agonistic confrontation is its very condition of existence." She even traces the word politics back to the word polemos, Greek for struggle and war. (In my own etymological sleuthing, I have found no such connection.) She uses this etymology to justify the common notion that politics is war by other means. For Mouffe, and her early co-author Ernesto Laclau, political success, following Antonio Gramsci, is the creation of a new cultural hegemony, in which the values and aims of the previously marginalized groups come to dominate and appear transparently as what is right and good. Under this new hegemony, the needs of the majority of people will move to the fore, making the will of the majority the new public policy. In the sense that this new politics will meet the needs of the majority, this view considers itself to be democratic. The means themselves, though, are not democratic. The means might include propaganda, manipulation, ways of creating a new hegemony of those who have been excluded over those who have held power beforehand. In other words, Mouffe's radical democracy arguably has a more democratic end in mind—a public sphere that includes all those who have previously been denied the title of citizen—but the politics itself is not necessarily democratic. Agonal feminist political theory is democratic only in the majoritarian sense, wanting to create a new hegemony of the previously silenced majority.
Because of my own peculiar biography and set of experiences, this approach never sits right with me. The closest I have been able to accept is that something we might call the sociosymbolic system oppresses us. Iris Young's analysis in her classis book, Justice and the Politics of Difference, moves a bit closer to this view, seeing oppression largely an an effect of social structures. From this point of view, mean and women are all implicated altogether, for there is no other that foists the system upon us. We are all a part of it, simultaneously its victims and its perpretrators. And sometimes freedom from one oppression leads to a wholly new one (just as my ability to be a mother and a philosophy professor rests upon my economic privilege to pay others much less than I make per hour to care for my children). Still, the notion of a sociosymbolic system can be even more powerful than Young's notion of structures. If we bring in Lacanian conceptions of the symbolic, we can see even more thorough and pervasive ways in which sociosymbolic systems "oppress" women. These systems are not something we can sanely reject, for they are the very same systems that allow us to differentiate and judge, think symbolically and speak with our fellows, write books and present at conferences. If this is "oppression," it is a very assiduous one indeed. It cannot be peeled away like a dirty garment. Perhaps it can be reworked or reformed via means of replacing bad structures or dichotomies with more liberatory ones. As I'll discuss later, this may be a fruitful direction, but if we are to pursue it then we may find that the language of "oppression" is no help at all, for such language presumes flat flows of power and ignores the multi-dimensional trajectories of meaning and intervention that occur in a communicative public space.
TOWARD ANOTHER POLITICS
But before I turn there, let me take one more pass at how feminists define "the problem." When the problem is seen as the product of an external oppressor, it is natural to look for a politics that seeks to banish, triumph over, or even annihilate the other. There are strands within feminist theory itself that call into question this approach and hence undercut notions the very notions that underlie agonistic politics. (These strands can be found in feminist critiques of liberal theory. And theorists such as Nancy Fraser, Jane Mansbridge, Carole Pateman, Iris Young, Seyla Benhabib, Anne Phillips, and many others have provided powerful critiques of the view of politics inaugurated by Joseph Schumpeter and played out through much of the twentieth century.) They do so by taking issue with the view that self-interest is formed pre-politically. Both agonistic and liberal political theory seem to presuppose that one's interests precede one's entrance into politics and that politics is the arena in which one acts to maximize one's own given set of interests. But for these other feminists I am now alluding to, as well as for pragmatists and others who have read Hegel seriously, there is no self prior to its formation in a sociohistorical world. Hence, it does not make sense to think of politics merely as an arena in which one barters (the liberal view) or struggles (the agonal view) to become better off than others. Self-interests or, to put it better, our conceptions of the good—of meaning, value, and purpose—are formed in the thick of politics, in and through our relations in a sociohistorical world. In short, subjectivity and its concomitant desires are formed socially and experientially in a world with others. There is no exclusion of the other without some dissolution of oneself. Hence, agonistic politics is a serious misadventure.
So how might the problem be conceived otherwise? I mentioned at the start another possibility, to which I now turn. Perhaps the fault lies not with oppression from without but from the way that sociosymbolic systems constitute us through and through. I think various theoretical frameworks try to get at these systems. Both psychoanalysis and semiotics consider how the self is constituted through language and relations with others. Certain approaches to linguistics, history, economics and other social sciences consider how the social world in time and through time constitutes the self. American pragmatism and German critical theory dispute old concepts of fixed identity in favor of historical views of how the self performatively announces itself in a field with others. Heirs of Marx look at how the economy and its structures help shape our possibilities. Philosophers from Bergson to Royce consider the way that our understanding of time, extending backward through memory and forward through hope, connect us to a world of others, helping to create an identity in community. All these theoretical lenses open up aspects of our sociosymbolic world as a matrix through which we are constituted. We are not the holders of signs and symbols, they hold us. We can interact back, with the sort of technics and probes Robert Innis discusses in his work; but these actions are always with in a field that interacts back.
A promising feminist project follows along the lines that Charles S. Peirce inaugurated: an examination of the signs that make up our world and with it our selves. Instead of seeing politics as a flat field in which power flows from oppressor to oppressed, a semiotic approach sees a multi-dimensional world permeated by signs, with meaning and identity being produced through semiotic processes in which all actors actively produce, interpret, and re-interpret meaning. Looking at the world pragmatically and semiotically, we can see how the world is permeated by signs that demand interpretation, and any active, novel interpretation produces new meanings and signs that in turn demand interpretation.
I think it is a step forward to move from a flat model of oppression to a multi-dimensional semiotic model; but then we see the magnitude of the task at hand. We live in a world in which signs and symbols, in multiple and overdetermined ways, constitute deep structures that continually keep women as second-class citizens, if citizens at all. Feminists attuned to these symbolic structures understand that these systems cannot simply be tossed away and replaced. The task is to find ways to reconfigure the signs, with their semiotic processes and structures, that produce negative conceptions of the feminine, conceptions that disappear from view, that become "natural" in so far as they operate at the level of metaphysical thinking, suppositions about what is "really real." The feminist task, then, is huge: to raise to consciousness the fundamental myths at work in the dichotomies of real/apparent, natural/cultural, active/passive, one/many... Sound familiar? Are these not the same tasks that the American pragmatists undertook?
PRAGMATIC FEMINIST POLITICS
Recently some feminists have begun to approach politics in a way that can be recognized as pragmatic, democratic, and deliberative. As opposed to those who see politics as a contest, I think they understand that the fundamental task is to understand politics as a symbolic field in which, among many things, the meaning of what it is to be a woman is discursively or semiotically constituted. The forces at work are not exactly anonymous, but neither are they the forces of particular agents, e.g, oppressive men, misogynists, or patriarchs. There really aren't any bad guys in this picture. Rather, we are all, men and women, born into a world in which symbolic structures always already constitute us as feminine or masculine with all the supposed affiliated attributes; that is, our subjectivity is constituted through these semiotic processes and structures. We learn to speak and to think in and through these structures, and then we in turn raise or inculcate other generations into and through these structures. This does not mean that we are passive victims of patriarchal structures, but it does mean that feminists are in the funny position of having to use the tools of a patriarchal structure or symbolic field in order to try to transform it. From a semiotic point of view, the hope of a political activist, feminist or otherwise, is to intervene in the way that signs are deployed. Such interventions do not come from outside these semiotic processes but in and through them, in other words, discursively and semiotically. We refashion language and symbols by using language and symbols, by discursively highlighting and questioning the ways in which semiotic processes function. There is no outside the system, no we/they dichotomy that the oppression model supposes. Instead of a politics of one party trying to overcome another, in this pragmatist approach we are all members of a common sociosymbolic field. Rather than pointing to agon, this model points to interventions into what we all share.
Of course, feminists understand that this common public sphere situates members differently with women nearly universally positioned at the negative poles of binary thinking. In a symbolic field that sets at odds and hierarchizes concepts such as active and passive, mind and body, culture and nature, the feminine is positioned on the lower end. Situated at the negative poles of the symbolic field, women who intervene can come at these poles from the margins of the field. The French feminist philosopher Luce Iriagary does this famously well, though I won't go into how she does that here. Suffice it to say that her interventions do use the language of the sociosymbolic field, but they do so in a way that shows its weaknesses and blind spots. Hence, such interventions are critical without being oppositional. Likewise, other feminist theorists who focus on sociosymbolic fields part company with agonistic feminism. I am thinking of the works of some thinkers loosely known as continental feminists, though they also have strong affinities with pragmatist thought, namely Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, along with some continental feminist theorists based in the United States, such as Drucilla Cornell, Kelly Oliver, and the late Teresa Brennan.
It might be a stretch, but I think I can safely say that their ultimate interest is the commonweal and not the partisan interests of one segment of humanity. If my supposition is tenable, then their approach is open to what Sheldon Wolin describes as the political, "the idea that a free society composed of diversities can nonetheless enjoy moments of commonality when, through public deliberations, collective power is used to promote or protect the well-being of the collectivity." While none of them directly address democratic theory, their views point toward democratic feminist politics in the same way that Peirce's semiotics paved the way for Dewey to argue that the public "finds itself" communicatively. Attending to sociosymbolic structures and processes and the ways in which these formulate "the feminine" is the fundamental political task for feminists. Only after such work has begun can we carry on other tasks, such as legal reforms, economic measures, and all. In a real sense, these other problems or symptoms are superstructural effects of fundamental maladies in the communicative public sphere.
What I have referred throughout this paper with the poststructural, semiotic term, the "sociosymbolic" field, is, ultimately, another way of talking about the central category in democratic thought today: the public sphere. Drawing on Habermas's notion that this is a communicative arena in which lifeworld questions are addressed, that is, questions of solidarity, kinship, meaning, purpose, love, and justice, we can see from another angle the ways in which such matters of the commonweal—fundamentally political questions—are attended to discursively. These questions and meanings are constituted symbolically from and by the multitude of public actors, citizens, and subjects. The political public sphere is not a place but an ongoing semiotic happening, the grids and flows of communication: through the mass media, through dinner table conversation, web logs, cable access television, the local paper, the art world, PTA meetings, letters to the editor, the chattering on the playground and in the classroom. All of these are intersecting communicative fields in which meaning, identity, and purpose are created.
Feminists who understand "the problem" as that of the way in which this sociosymbolic field or discursive public sphere is structured tend to work directly on various ways in which this field structures subjectivity and experience. Many see subjectivity as a process, just as many process philosophers do, not as a static entity. Radically departing from the Cartesian picture of the self as mind, as a glassy essence that is indivisible and fully transparent to itself, pragmatically-inclined feminist thinkers understand that the self is continuously constituted via dynamic processes. They argue that any self is emerges through a particular culture, language, history, time, and place. This does not mean that subjectivity is constituted groundlessly, but that it is always a product of some particular socio-historical symbolic framework.
The second way that these pragmatically-inclined, continental feminist theorists attend to the sociosymbolic field is through their conception of language. Along with much of the rest of philosophy in the twentieth century, continental thinkers took the linguistic turn. Continentally inspired feminists took this turn in especially productive ways. Kristeva, for example, develops the conception of le sujet en procès or the subject in process and on trial. She points to the ways in which we constitute ourselves through our signifying practice. In short, the signifying process includes not only our straightforward attempts to be meaningful but also the subterranean effects of our affects and drives. Whenever we engage in language, we inadvertently express hidden aspects of our selves (hidden even from ourselves), including our emotions, moods, fears, drives, and other energy. Drawing on Kristeva's work, Kelly Oliver argues that survivors of political brutality reconstitute their own subjectivity by bearing witness, publicly, to the wrongs they endured. By bearing witness to these events, they performatively recreate their sense of being a self worth heeding. (There is much more to say here about language, signs, and symbols, not the room in this paper to go further.)
A third way that this feminist approach shares many of the virtues of pragmatism is through its conception of sexual difference. While second-wave Anglo American feminists came up with the distinction between sex and gender as a way to show that sexism was based upon cultural constructs of femininity that might be eradicated, continental feminists have played up the notion that sexual difference is real and should be evaluated properly. To make a very long story short (and, admittedly, contentious), analytically-oriented feminists inadvertently support the ideal of androgyny, that sexual difference can be washed away; yet continental and pragmatist feminists reject any view that aims toward neutrality. Our societies have pretended to be neutral (universal) in a way that favors all that is masculine. The need now is to identify and value what is feminine and different about women. Putting matters this way, these feminists risk being labeled as essentialist, as supporting a view that might keep women locked into stereotypes based upon a spurious "essence" of women. But careful readers who note the first point I mentioned above, that individuation is a process and not the unfolding of an essence, will see that this feminism cannot be essentialist in any such way.
Over the years I have found that the above features of this pragmatist approach in continental philosophy make it very compatible with democratic thought. For example, the view of subjectivity as a process helps explain people's inclination to take part in politics and political deliberations. As I gather from observing political forums (which I have done as part of my research for the past 15 years), participants in political deliberation see much more at stake than the shape of public policy; they see at stake the shape and purpose of their own selves and communities. They see that in their political choices they are also choosing their own identities. Deliberative theory sees the central task of deliberation to be that of choice, choosing not only a particular policy direction but the shape of the participants' political community. John Dewey made the same point about the role of choice in individuals' lives.
As momentous as choosing is for an individual, it is that much more complex and consequential for a political community. An individual struggles with choice when she has many competing options. As Dewey writes, "The occasion of deliberation is an excess of preferences, not natural apathy or an absence of likings. We want things that are incompatible with one another; therefore we have to make a choice of what we really want." If we multiply these difficulties by the number of people in a public deliberation and then add in the factor of how central participants' political communities are to their own identity and ethical aspirations, we begin to see how difficult public choice making is. The difficulty is not, as the first political model holds, that politics is an agonal arena of competing interests. The difficulty is that we are each torn and, at the risk of sounding trite, there are no easy answers.
Continental feminist theories about the role of speaking in creating selves and political communities provide a rich way of thinking about deliberation itself. In political deliberations people talk together. They lean toward each other, rather than leaning backward in a posture of defiance. They lean in to find a way through a thicket of political difficulties, constraints, and trade-offs. They lean in and speak together in the act of choosing a future direction.
Moreover, contrary to most economists and liberal thinkers, participants in political deliberation do not begin with fixed and clear ideas about their preferences and self-interest. As Marx, Freud, Kristeva, and others have noted, there is a definite degree of opacity in human beings' own self-understanding. So deliberation cannot be a simple, straightforward matter of participants communicating their views. Deliberation is always also a self-hermeneutics, a way of creating via other's perceptions a self-understanding. Partiality and finitude are aspects of our political condition and call for deliberation as a way to learn from others.
Yet as complex as the task of political choice may be, when people deliberate together they do eventually begin to delineate possible courses of action. As they talk, the murkiness of the political scene begins to settle in to noticeable rivulets, paths and courses, shapes of what the participants commonly find to be valuable and important. These are shapes they could not have ascertained before they came together and began to map their various concerns into some kind of political topography. The aim of such deliberations is not consensus; the aim is to frame an issue and map the choices in a way that lays out the hindrances, resistances, and difficulties inherent in the issue and points to directions that might be more promising. Such a map will show why some will resist certain courses of action and what is at stake for various members of the polity. In deliberating, participants come to appreciate why an approach will or will not work for someone else at the table. They may not share that person's concerns, but they often come to appreciate the other's perspective and seek some way in which to honor it, often because they come to appreciate and seek to honor the other human being. If people compromise, it is not because they are trying to wrest what little they can from the public arena but because they come to value the others in the room. Deliberation does not uncover or create common as opposed to private interests; it helps to create interest in things common, namely the public sphere itself.
Finally, the feminist notion of sexual difference supports what I call an integrative model of democratic deliberation in that it takes as a given that members of a polity begin from irreducibly particular perspectives. There is no objective, neutral "view from nowhere" from which one might deliberate. When we enter a public forum, we enter with our particular sexual orientations and identities, along with the myriad other particular associations we have. Some worry that such particularism makes conversation and understanding impossible. But an integrative model takes a different approach. In the deliberative quest to get a fuller picture of the political landscape, deliberators need the perspectives of others. One of the first things a successful deliberative forum moderator will do is ask, "Who else needs to be at this table?" What voices are missing? The more perspectives that are included, the more likely will the deliberation provide a coherent and full picture of the prospects for various policy options.
These are just a few of the ways in which feminist theory can attend to the discursive public sphere and enter into the task of reweaving the fabric of signs and symbols that structure experience and possibility. As I hope I have shown, a more pragmatist and effective feminist politics leaves behind the model of oppression and picks up the idea of the public sphere as a discursive semiotic space in which we can engage. The politics this calls for is deliberative. In short, feminist theories that see subjectivity as an ongoing, dynamic process that is shaped by its relations with others and constituted through language fit well with a model of deliberative politics. By bringing feminist theory into the conversation of pragmatism as well as deliberative democratic theory and practice, it is possible to create a model of politics that is as democratic as it is feminist.
 In this paragraph I briefly describe Chantal Mouffe's agonistic political theory. Others also adopt an agonal model, including Bonnie Honig in Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,1993) and Iris Young in Inclusion and Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
 Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox (London & New York: Verso, 2000), 103.
 SPEP presentation, 1993?
 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony & Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London & New York: Verso, 1985).
 See Jane Mansbridge, "Feminism and Democracy" in Anne Phillips, Feminism & Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); Alison Jaggar, Feminist Politics and Human Nature (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1983); and Elizabeth Frazer, "Democracy, Citizenship, and Gender" in April Carter and Geoffrey Stokes (eds), Democratic Theory Today (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2002).
 This is familiar ground, so I won't rehearse all the ways that feminists have found fault with agonistic politics, primarily as it is manifested in liberal (as opposed to deliberative) democratic theory. Alison Jaggar, Jane Mansbridge, and Elizabeth Frazer do a very good job of summarizing this critique. See, for example, Nancy Fraser, Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989); Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988); Iris Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990) and Intersecting Voices: Dilemmas of Gender, Political Philosophy, and Policy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).
 Additionally, drawing on psychoanalytic theory, including Jacques Lacan's reformulation of Freudian theory, such feminist theorists understand that, as living, desiring beings, we are who we are as a result of the shape of our desires and attachments, and these are forever shifting. We chase after things we think will satisfy us, but the real object of our desire (Lacan's petit objet a) is unattainable, so our search moves us from one object to another. As human beings grow and develop, their primary attachments change and transform, and so too do their own identities. Moreover, our identities are socially constituted, even in the minimal sociality of a mirror image. It is only by recognizing its image in a mirror, Lacan noted, that an infant develops an illusory yet delightful self-image as a unified being. The feminist legal theorist Drucilla Cornell uses Lacan to show how crucial it is for society to grant women reproductive rights, for these are ultimately about her bodily integrity and sense of self.
By seeing subjectivity and individuation as social and even political processes, these feminist thinkers provide a way of thinking about people's involvement in common activities. Echoing the views of many American feminists (such as Virginia Held in her criticism of Thomas Hobbes's atomism), they argue that people do not spring into the world fully formed. They are here by virtue of their caregivers, attachments, and relationships. Continental thinkers add that these attachments (or what psychoanalysts call cathexes) continue to shape subjectivity.
 Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).
 Kelly Oliver, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).
 "Deliberation has an important function...because each different possibility as it is presented to the imagination appeals to a different element in the constitution of the self.... Every choice is at the forking of the roads, and the path chosen shuts off certain opportunities and opens others. In committing oneself to a particular course, a person gives a lasting set to his own being. Consequently, it is proper to say that in choosing this object rather than that, one is in reality choosing what kind of person or self one is going to be." See KR 1994, 29. 
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