Alain Badiou on the Women’s Question

Extract from the lecture “About the fate of contemporary girls” held by Alain Badiou

Contemporary capitalism is urging, and will eventually require, women to take upon themselves the new form of the One with which it wants to replace the One of symbolic authority, to replace the legitimate, religious authority of the Name-of-the-Father – namely, the One of consumerist, competitive individualism. Boys provide a weak, adolescent, frivolous, lawless, or even a borderline criminal version of this individualism. The girl-woman is being urged to provide a tough, mature, serious, legal, and punitive version of competitive, consumerist individualism. That’s why there is a whole bourgeois, authoritarian brand of feminism. It is not calling for a different world to be created but for the world as it is to be turned over to woman power. This feminism demands that women be judges, army generals, bankers, CEOs, Members of Parliament, government ministers, and presidents, and that even for women who aren’t any of those things – i.e., almost all women – this be the norm of women’s equality and their social value. To that effect, women are regarded as a reserve army for triumphant capitalism. So, far from being part of the process that creates something different from the One, that creates the Two and the passing-between-Two, a woman becomes the model of the new One, the One that stands boldly and brashly before the competitive market and is both its servant and its master.

Contemporary woman will be the symbol of the new One, erected on the ruins of the Name-of-the-Father. As a result, three of the ancient figures of the feminine – dangerous seduction, the amorous gift, and the mystical sublime – disappear. To be sure, the woman-One is naturally seductive, because seduction is a major weapon of competition. Women bankers and board chairwomen pride themselves on their ability to remain women, precisely in the sense of the seductress. The danger that such seduction represents, however, is one of the One’s weapons; it is by no means its double or a threat to it. Seduction is in the service of power. That’s why it must not be associated with the selfabandonment of love, which is a weakness and a kind of alienation. The woman-One is free, she’s a tough fighter, and if she decides to get into a relationship, it will be based on a contract with mutual benefits. Love becomes the existential form of the contract; it is just one deal among others. And lastly, the woman-One couldn’t care less about the mystical sublime. She would much prefer to run real organizations.

Basically, the idea is that not only can women do everything men do, but, under the conditions of capitalism, they can do it better than men. They’ll be more realistic than men, more relentless, more tenacious. Why? Precisely because girls no longer have to become the women that they already are, while boys don’t know how to become the men that they are not. So the One of individualism is stronger in women than in men.

If we were to indulge in a little science-fiction, perhaps we could simply predict the extinction of the male gender. You’d just have to freeze the sperm of a few tens of millions of men, which would amount to billions of genetic possibilities. Reproduction would thus be guaranteed by artificial insemination. All the males could then be exterminated. And, just as with bees or ants, humanity would only consist of women, who would do everything very well, given that the symbolic order would be minimal, being only the order required by the actual situation of capitalism.

After all, what capitalism requires is a life consisting of work, needs, and satisfactions. An animal life, in short. And it has been proven that what an animal life needs most is females, the males existing only for reproduction. But humanity has perfectly mastered artificial reproduction, without the need for mating or males. So, for the first time in human history, the end of the male gender is a real possibility.

However fictitious this prospect may be, it clearly shows that the crux of it all today is the reproduction of the human race, its modalities and its symbolism. This is the second problem of femininity today. I said that the figures of the Seductress, the Lover, and the Saint were directly threatened with extinction. But what about the figure of woman as a servant? The problem here is that if we admit that women can do everything that men do, the converse, for the time being, is not true. There is one thing that men absolutely can’t do, and that’s give birth to a baby. Accordingly, the woman remains a servant, naturally not of one man but of the whole human race. If, like men, but for reasons of personal convenience, she declared herself to be incapable of reproducing, incapable of childbearing, then the human race would just have to expect to become extinct. In this sense, for the time being, even the woman-One of capitalism remains a servant: a servant of humanity. That’s why the conversation is so often focused on this one topic today: childbearing, reproduction. These are all the socalled “social” issues that we’re constantly hearing about: abortion, infanticide, the responsibility for childcare, sexual consent, homosexual couples, surrogate mothers, and so on. It is also why bourgeois feminism manifests a sort of hostility to motherhood, the last refuge of the old servant figure. This can be seen, for example, in the writings of Elisabeth Badinter,1 who demands that we put an end to the idea of a “maternal instinct” and affirm that a woman exists fully and completely even if she doesn’t have children and doesn’t want to have any. That position is perfectly consistent with the contemporary girl-woman, because if a girl is already a woman, the converse is also true: every woman can be a girl, with no desire for children. That may be a completely legitimate option. But you have to admit that it can’t be a rule, because the problem is, when a rule is formulated, the consequences of its universalization, as Kant put it, always have to be considered. However, the universalization of the refusal to bear children amounts, quite simply, to the end of the human race. This is such a dim prospect that everyone, of course, ultimately prefers for women to remain the servants of humanity. Once again, this divides the One of the capitalist feminine into a creative duality and thereby raises a very difficult subjective problem for it.

At this point, I feel like saying: let contemporary capitalist societies deal with this problem that they’ve created, after all. My still very unclear view of things is that we’ve got to both accept the end of the traditional figures and reject the figure of the woman-One as capitalism’s reserve army. Women will break out, have already frequently broken out, of the imaginary and symbolic circle made up of the four figures of the Servant, the Seductress, the Lover, and the Saint. But many of them are in no way resigned, on the basis of this negative freedom, to the opposite fate of the woman- One of capital. They know that this contemporary figure destroys the capacity of the Two and replaces it with an abstract unity of servitude. They know that, as a result, childbearing, detached from strong symbolizations, will only subsist as irreducible domestic service, as creativity without any glory. They see that the prospect, even if only a fantasy, of men’s extinction would forever make them slaves of themselves and unleash their latent ferocity. What must be affirmed above all, whether you’re a man or a woman, is that, to the extent that it exists at all, the woman question cannot be determined by the demands of contemporary capitalist societies. We need to choose a completely external starting point. And this is probably why, for the first time, there’s no escaping the fact that the feminine, as newly clarified, is linked to a philosophical gesture. Because the new starting point can be neither biological nor social nor legal. It can only be a gesture of thought linked to the creation of symbols. A gesture linked, therefore, to the adventures of philosophy, and one that is all the newer given that this female creation of symbols will have to include childbearing in a dimension different from reproductive animality.

Let’s assume that the order of symbol creation, or the order of the Law, is no longer absolutely dependent on the Nameof- the-Father. We then have a thinking of truths free of all transcendence. God is really dead. And since God is dead, the absolute One of male closure can no longer govern the entire order of symbolic and philosophical thinking. A sexuation of this thinking is inevitable. How, then, does this sexuation function in the real domains of these truths without God, without paternal guarantee? These are the questions we need to begin with. Concretely: what is a woman who engages in the politics of emancipation? What is a woman artist, musician, painter, or poet? A woman who is brilliant in math or physics? A woman who, rather than being some mysterious goddess, takes equal responsibility for thought and action in a love relationship? What is a woman philosopher? And, conversely, what do creative politics, poetry, music, cinema, mathematics, or love become – what does philosophy become – once the word “woman” resonates in them in tune with the power of symbol-creating equality?

These questions are being worked on, because women are working on them, in a new in-between place that can be described as: neither Tradition nor the dominant Contemporary. Women will pass between the two and subvert the One that they are being urged to become. This is a unique tension. Indeed, women should be much more wary today of what capitalism is offering them in the way of liberation than they should be of men. I don’t know what women will invent, given the predicament they’re in. But I trust them absolutely. What I’m sure of, without really knowing why, is that they’ll invent a new girl. She will be the girl who is determined to become the new woman, the woman that women are not and must become, the woman who is fully involved in the creation of symbols and will also include childbearing in it. The woman who will thereby induce men to share fully in all the consequences, henceforth universally symbolized, of reproduction. So childbearing and childcare will never again mean being a servant. Men and women will share in a new universal symbolization of birth and all its consequences. This girl, as yet unknown but who is coming, will be able to proclaim, is probably already proclaiming somewhere, to the sky empty of God:

Beautiful heaven, true heaven, look how I change!-

1 See The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status o f Women (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012).

2 Paul Valery, “The Graveyard by the Sea,” tr. C. Day Lewis, in Selected Writings o f Paul Valery (New York: New Directions, 1964), 43.

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