Mediate and aggregate
For those who are already acquainted with Christine Delphy’s work, Separate and Dominate is a long-awaited publication. It does not disappoint. Having co-founded the journal Nouvelles Questions feministes with Simone de Beauvoir over four decades ago, Delphy remains one of the most influential and controversial feminist thinkers in France. With sharp and accurate arguments across a range of different text and formats, she applies the materialist feminist theory of sex and gender, for which she is best known, to questions of race and ‘othering’, and, in doing so, lays out the premiss for a new universal political project that sacrifices no one at the expense of others.
The main aim of Separate and Dominate is to demonstrate that human division is socially constructed through concrete material practices. Delphy provides us with analytical insights into the oppression of women, queer people, Afghan civilians and Guantánamo inmates and warns us against false oppositions between oppressed groups. Particularly, she challenges the claims that the French ‘veil law’ and the invasion of Afghanistan were attempts to emancipate women and the way in which feminists came to support racist measures. Although some of the essays in this collection date back to 1996, and a few discuss political events particular to France, the issues addressed are far from outdated or parochial. With the intensification of Islamophobia, especially after the November Paris attacks, continuously high rates of domestic violence and the increase in racialized murders by police in North America, the book reveals the degree to which Western societies still have Others in common.
The opening essay, ‘Who’s behind the “Others”?’, is by far the most philosophical. Here Delphy presents the reader with her underlying theoretical framework, some of which can be understood as a development of her former works ‘Rethinking Sex and Gender’ (1993; published in the journal Women’s Studies International Forum), The Main Enemy (1977) and Close to Home: A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression (1984). Through brief engagements with thinkers including Levinas, Hegel and Freud, Delphy argues that the concept of the Other is purely an invention of the Western tradition. Philosophy, understood here as a Weltanschauung, a world-view that a culture has in common, has ever since Plato firstly been a reflection on the self and only secondarily a reflection on the world. However, the ‘I’ is never alone. Indeed, when writing ‘cogito, ergo sum’, Descartes never asks what the conditions of possibility of his thinking are – nurture, shared language and care. Therefore, Delphy concludes, the Western Weltanschauung is a philosophy of the dominant: the Ones. Further, as a social construct this idea of the Other is upheld through material practices, including discursive and ideological ones; it is the One who has the power to name and define ‘the Other’, whereas the Other qua Other can never be the One. The idea of the ‘Other’, then, as a way of ‘naturalizing’ the oppression of women, non-whites and gays, is itself the source of oppression. The relationship between the Other and the One is not reciprocity. The Ones are by definition in a position of power and privilege.
This is not, of course, a new argument. Although Delphy only reminds us of it in a brief footnote in this book, all her work is marked by the notion that a dichotomous distinction, such as that between men and women, is a social construct and, as such, not an essentialist one. This is because the ‘mark of sex’ is not found in a pure state, but rather is a mark of an exploitative social hierarchy. Delphy does not deny anatomical and reproductive differences between males and females, but argues that there is no essential reason why the reproductive function should be extended as a division into all fields of human activity. Thus, the mark of sex merely allows us to identify the dominated from the dominants, and like the concept of the ‘Other’ it allows for a naturalized explanation for the oppression of women.
In the chapter ‘Race, Caste and Gender in France’, Delphy applies the same principles to the concept of race. Instead of reproductive organs, here colour is the axis of the dichotomy. Again, Delphy makes it clear we are talking about a social construct, which employs some of the physical characteristics of individuals to construct hierarchically ordered groups. Otherness is born of a hierarchical division, and is simultaneously the means of this division. Consequently, gender and race are social constructs built for the purpose of domination, although they take distinct forms. Delphy has rehearsed the solution to this before, particularly in The Main Enemy: we must do away with dichotomous categories. Whereas differentiating between individuals or items is not necessarily hierarchical, dichotomous categorizations are. She refers to her argument that although we categorize vegetables, for example, they are not hierarchically organized in this distinction. The negation within a dichotomy necessitates that one category is superior to the other. This is why the ‘liberal’ response of ‘accepting the Other’ is still oppressive.
The second theme addressed by this book is the multiplicity of oppressed groups, and the relation between them and the concept of class. Although she is not explicit in her use of the term ‘intersectionality’, the chapters ‘A Movement: What Movement?’ and ‘Anti-sexism or Anti-racism? A False Dilemma’, make a good attempt to theoretically untangle and develop this concept. What is at stake in Separate and Dominate is the way in which the struggle of one group can serve as a tool for the oppression of another; disclosing the form of racism disguising itself as a feminist liberatory discourse that was employed, for example, in the war against terror and the French hijab ban.
As a self-proclaimed materialist feminist, this is not new territory for Delphy. As opposed to a more Marxist tradition, this strand of feminist theory insists on examining the material conditions under which social arrangement and oppression develop, in ways which are not reducible to strict capitalist economic relations. Criticizing the present-day function of the class struggle as divisive in so far as it has the ability to silence people against other forms of oppression, Delphy argues that struggles are necessarily multiple and non-hierarchical. The social production of sex and race relies on material conditions of all sorts and the different ways in which people participate in these social productions.
Perhaps the most significant contribution to the discussion of structural oppression is to be found in the chapter ‘Race, Caste and Gender in France’, introducing the concept of caste as a ‘local system of oppression’. Where the concept of class fails, so does ‘race’. Focusing on ex-colonized North African immigrants in contemporary France, Delphy argues that the concept of caste is useful for explaining a specific place of racial oppression within the class system. Whereas race emphasizes the process, caste stresses the results – the ‘inherited social structure’ – of the process. This takes up the deployment of a concept of caste in The Main Enemy to explain women’s oppression. Referring to women’s economic position as performers of unpaid housework, she argues that as a group, which is subject to a relation of production, they constitute a class, and as a category of human beings who are destined at birth to become a part of a particular class, they constitute a caste. In this way, then, women share a certain class position, which somehow transcends the capitalist class structure. As applied to Delphy’s argument in Separate and Dominate, this would imply that certain immigrant groups are not only a caste; they also constitute a particular class, much like women. However, apart from mentioning that caste functions ‘within’ the class system, the relation between the two becomes rather more blurry in Separate and Dominate than in her earlier work.
How, then, in more practical terms, does Separate and Dominate suggest that we move forward? Can we propose a strategy of ‘the left’? In ‘A Movement: What Movement?’ Delphy poses the question of whether we need to reject the categories of race, sex and class altogether. If we are to fully understand the overlap of oppressions we need to attend to the array of ‘real’ lived experiences. However, she also adds that these categories might be useful for helping people analyse their own situation. Each oppression, then, is the basis for an autonomous struggle; however, such struggle must always address the ways in which oppressions overlap.
Unfortunately, it is not clear what the universal approach proposed here by Delphy must focus on. Delphy explicitly argues that the Other/One distinction is a result of a division as opposed to an a priori cause of it. Similarly, Delphy repeatedly criticizes the orthodox Marxist approach of reducing oppression in capitalist society to pure relations of production. In her earlier work, Close to Home, for example, she argued that the oppression of women is rooted in the so-called ‘domestic mode of production’ existing alongside the capitalist mode of production. For Delphy, men appropriate the unpaid labour of the wife and of other family members as head of the household in a form that therefore necessarily differs from the extraction of surplus value from wage labour. But we are left to wonder how, by comparison, we understand race, caste and sexuality with regard to modes of production, and thus how exactly we universalize the struggle.
Separate and Dominate, then, does leave a number of questions to be answered, and if the reader is not acquainted with Delphy’s more philosophical work it can at times be difficult to tease the theory out of the writing. However, Delphy does not set out to present an all-encompassing philosophical theory. In fact, what the collection does is call for further developments in materialist feminism. After reading Separate and Dominate, it is clearer than ever that this is an urgent call.
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