diotimacomunità filosofica femminile

per amore del mondo Numero 4 - 2005

Pensiero della differenza

Rethinking Freedom: The Politics of Sexual Difference in Contemporary Italy  

* University of Auckland, Italian Department/ SELL Seminar – October 15 2003

Monash University, Melbourne, The Italian Studies Program School of Languages, Cultures and   Linguistic –  22 October 2003


  1. I would like to thank Bernadette Luciano for the opportunity to have this exchange with you. In times of globalization, the exchange of experiences is fundamentally important, if we mean globalization as a new cosmopolitanism to be constructed from the bottom up, and not as an order that is imposed on us from above.  In the case of feminism, it is doubly important, because the relation with the other (female or male)  is the practice to which  I and my Italian women friends completely entrust ourselves . The Italian feminism of difference is not institutionalised in women’s studies or in gender studies, although many of us give university courses that focus on the theory and practice of sexual difference. Nor does Italian feminism make use of any state institution, such as equal opportunity commissions, which has the legal function of dealing with  – and fencing in – the “gender question”.  This strategic decision not to institutionalise our political and cultural path allows us to maintain the original nature of feminism as a movement of sexed subjectivity that is not  objectified  as an “issue” and is not crystallized in a collective identity.  In short, we consider the movement of sexual difference as a theoretic, linguistic and political practice, working in context, on the basis of relations between women, and between women and men when possible, that are freely chosen. Prioritising practice, rather than institutions or institutionalisation, means that theory and experience, thought and action, the ends and the means, the enunciation and the subject of the enunciation, the modification of reality and the modification of oneself are not separate things, as has so often  happened in movements to change the world. Instead, these elements form a cicle, in which ideas are borne out of practice and are tested again in practice.

Precisely because of these characteristics, the philosophy of sexual difference does not lend itself to being described as a complete and abstract “corpus”, but only as a  thought in progress, linked to the practices that generate and re-generate it in the historical contexts in which it operates. I’ll try to give you an insight into it through the notion of freedom, which is ideal for demonstrating both the cicle I’ve just mentioned, and the relationship between the path of the feminism of difference and the historical era to which it belongs. Indeed, freedom is on the one hand the chosen field of the feminism of difference, the original investment that distinguishes it from the feminism of equality and of emancipation. But on the other hand, it is also the field of the main theoretical and political conflict central to the turn of the century in western democracies, and in the relation between the West and the rest of the world. How do these two matters relate to each other?




  1. I will seek to answer this question starting with a paradox that I encountered in historical-political accounts (male as well as female) from the end of the 20th century. In almost all of these accounts, whether they were apologetic or critical of the climate in which the century was coming to a close, there was space for the female oppression that still goes on in the world, but there wasn’t space for the freedom that all of us women, and millions of women who are not here with us today, feel we have gained from feminism and thanks to feminism. Or rather, this gain was classified as a chapter in the glories of modernization and liberal democracy: within a context of general economic and political progress in the West, we women had also become freer to go out, to dress, to make love, to consume, to speak, to meet, to vote. So, women who were not freer, but more emancipated, more similar to men, at long last annexed to the only sex that modern political thought of the origins had decreed as “free”; and at last women could be linked back to the declension that modern political thought had given to freedom. In brief: in the accounts from the end of the 20th century, the female revolution was reduced from an experience of freedom to the conquest of rights and equality. Nothing was said, however, of that which we understood to be freedom: autonomy from the male codes, decentralization from phallocentricity, the freedom to exist and be in the world according to our own means. The freedom, in the words of Carolyn Heilbrun, to “write our lives” according to narrative strategies chosen by ourselves. And nothing was said of the reformulation of the concept of political freedom that feminism brought about, and about which I will speak in a moment. In short, nothing of that freedom rooted not in homologation with the other sex but in female difference.

It is true that this freedom, since it is based on shifting the dominant phallocratic measures, is difficult to assess: it can be seen, but not quantified; it acts, but will not be ordered through either rights or law. And it is true that, for our part, as we explain in the latest book from the philosophical community “Diotima”, it is difficult to make history and tradition of it. But the end of century context did not help us. The twentieth century – which was not, as it is fashionable to say now in Italy and in the United States, just the century of totalitarianisms, but was also a century of great liberation movements – came to a close while waving the flag of freedom, but of a freedom that was reduced to the most restricted of its possible meanings. With the fall of the Berlin wall, the West celebrated in itself the triumph of the only possible free world, linking together in a linear sequence  freedom, capitalism, democracy. Freedom came out of it as celebrated as it was impoverished, in the winning field of the Right but also on the Left, in Italy and elsewhere. On the Right an anti-political concept of freedom has taken hold, which considers it as a release from the public sphere, the privatization of life, immunization from contact with others, freedom of enterprise and consumption, do-it-yourself mythology – right up to Bush and Blair’s  do-it-yourself war in Iraq. The Left, for its part, has been unable to process the failures recorded in the course of the twentieth century by ideologies and liberation movements, and it has not been able to oppose the Right’s offensive with anything more than an idea of freedom that was weak in itself. It identified freedom with the many  freedoms that were guaranteed by rights, without seeing that in all our societies, the accumulation of formal rights lives alongside the tendencies to apathy, to conformity, to depoliticization, to the capitalistic colonization of desire, that define a condition of voluntary servitude, more than freedom, in the Western homo democraticus.

So, the political and philosphical panorama of the last decades of the century lacked a practice and a theory of freedom which, rather than trusting in  the State, in law and in rights, could question and mobilize the subjectivity and basic relations of the social contract. That, however, is precisely what the thought  of sexual difference does in Italy, wedging itself into the crisis of political thought and opening up another path to freedom, between the liberal-democratic paradigm of rights and the Marxist paradigm of liberation. I will try to briefly reconstruct for you what this other path is, and how we found it, and then put it to the test of some questions from our present .


  1. Criticism of the liberal-democratic paradigm is at the heart of the very origins of Italian feminism.This feminism does not come out of a request for equality and rights; on the contrary, it was borne out of the perception of a lack of freedom, exactly at a time when the rights of freedom were solidly confirmed for women too. At the end of the Sixties, when feminism exploded, the process of including women in the polis democratica had been fully completed. We were all citizens, equal to men and owners of all the rights written in the Constitution; yet nonetheless we did not feel free. Emancipation had not made us mistresses of our own lives, of our sexuality, of our desire, of our words, which were still imprisoned in the patriarcal social and symbolic order. Philosophical study was to reveal to us later the complicity that the universalist mask of the three words of the Enlightment _ Freedom, Equality, Fraternity _ shared with that order, through out the whole history of the modern State. But at the beginning, it was the experience of small women-only groups that paved the way for our freedom: the public, visible and declared separation from men. That gesture of separation meant that to become subjects of speech and desire, we had to remove ourselves from the male gaze and male speech. But it was also a gesture that split the public arena, opening up for us women a political space that was constructed upon and around relations instead of traditional political rules. So that gesture was a slash in the socio-symbolic order that united the private and the public, the personal and the political, omitting the mediations of the juridical-political structure that had historically kept these two areas separate. On our path to freedom, we were moving on another level – to quote a famous expression of Carla Lonzi, an important and loved italian feminist of the Seventies – compared to that structure, showing that, although it was not unconnected to the history of the female sex, it does not express the essential side of it.

Other issues for the criticism of the liberal-democratic paradigm were provided by the battles on abortion and sexual violence, showing that the kernel of female freedom is not guaranteed by the catalogue of rights, which is constructed on the pretence of the neutral individual and is difficult to adapt to sexual difference; instead, female freedom lies in the analysis of sexuality and the practice of relations between women. In theoretical terms, we can say that Italian feminism’s criticism of the logic of rights meets the criticism of liberal atomism of some American feminist philosophers – such as Elizabeth Wolgast, Carole Patenam, Carol Gilligan, Iris Marion Young – , but adds to it a more radical criticism of the omnipotence of juridical mediation: for us, the fundamental mediation does not lie in law but in the political practice of relations, since – as one of our slogans says – politics is above the law, and political practice par excellence is the practice of  relations.


However, the Marxist paradigm of liberation is also reappraised by the theory and practice of difference, with a series of theoretical moves that, again, stem from practice. Taking part in, as many of us did, the movements of 1968 and the 1970s, when we women ended up being in second place to men anyhow, we were forced to recognise that liberation movements do not always produce freedom. By following the same logic of power to which they are fighting against, liberation movements tend to reproduce relations of domination within them. And when they succede, they in turn reproduce such relations in the social organisations which they give rise to – as has been noted by authors such as Simone Weil, Hanna Arendt, Michel Foucault. But above all, we had to recognise that the paradigm of liberation does not suit the man-woman relationship because this relationship, as Carla Lonzi said, cannot be referred back to the master-servant dialectic. The paradigm of liberation focuses more on male domination than female subjectivity; it depicts us as a passive effect of oppression, not as the active subjects of an autonomous desire for freedom. In a word, it represents us as victims and it reproduces us as victims, eternally waiting for the golden moment of collective liberation. Within this representation, the female desire for freedom cannot burst out, it always depends on the other, on his power over us, on his measure.  In political practice we have understood, however, that our desire for freedom can circulate and act in the world just as it is, in the here and now without waiting for any golden moment, if it finds a reference and measure  in another woman who authorises it. Being free doesn’t mean so much, or only, detaching ourselves from male power, as much as attaching ourselves to female authority. This is a shift that is preceded by years of work, that I can only touch on briefly, on the figure of the symbolic mother, understood as a source of authorisation, and on the disparity of the mother-daughter relationship, which is interpreted as the source of a social relationship characterized not by symbiosis, or viceversa, by the demand for absolute independence, but by a conscious interdependence, by mediation and by linguistic exchange.


  1. The practical effects of this shift are enormous and we encountered and assessed them in our live, in the Italy of the 1990s, when the split which was opened up in the public arena by female separation became even deeper; it was also a time when – a bit like in 1930s Europe as described by Virginia Woolf in The Three Guineas – an extraordinary female growth was met by the narcissistic stiffening of male power that no longer had any authority and symbolic productivity, and was, for many women, incapable of seduction. In such a situation, free female action can travel at the speed of light if it breaks away from the dead-end track of these segregated and segregating domination relations, and gets onto the right track of relations of desire. I would, however, also like to underline the theoretical effects of this shift, which are no less relevant.

Indeed, in my opinion, the Italian theory and practice of sexual difference defines a true and proper paradigm of freedom – in which some affinities can be seen with the thinking of Hannah Arendt. This paradigm speaks of everyone in the present tense, women and men, wedging itself into the weak, or reactionary, philosophy of freedom of our times. In short, it’s about a freedom based on desire and not on the rationalistic repression of it. A relational freedom, in other words not atomistic, like in the liberal-democratic system, but nor based on a group identity, as in the communitarian response to that system. A freedom that is not reached – as it is in the education novel of the Kantian male, adult, independent individual that is at the root of modern political anthropology – through  rebellion against paternal authority and its sublimation in the impersonal authority of the Law; but through the acceptance of maternal authority and the continual negotiation between autonomy and dependence that the relationship with the mother brings with it, and which reappears in all the important relationships in adult life. A freedom that re-proposes the antithesis, rejected by contemporary political thought, between freedom and power, and re-launches the generative capacities of authority. Finally a freedom that is not conquered once and for all, and is once and for all written and guaranteed in formal rights, and nor is it a messianic promise which is always put off until after the demolition and seizing of power. Instead, it is freedom in deed and in practice, an event which is manifested and renewed each time it modifies the social and symbolic order, shifting power relations or opening up spaces of meaning and significance. In short, to use Jean-Luc Nancy’s words, it is a freedom interpreted as experience, exposed to risks and open to the unexpected, that must be constantly re-launched and, as Hannah Arendt said, reborn .

Clearly, with this paradigm of freedom we are going beyond the constellation of modern Politics and the neutral and atomised individual on which it is based; but we are also far from the post-modern myth of the nomadic subjects, with no origins and no binding relations, of post-modern  – and feminist post-modern – thought. But now let’s ask ourselves: how much space is there for this freedom in our present? My answer is: an infinite amount of space, because the chain of desire, or relations, of re-signification that we can link together is infinite. But of course my optimistic answer must contend with two issues that threaten our current situation: a) the aggressive claim that rights are universalistic which is taking shape once again in the West, and conversely the rebirth of liberation movements against this western aggressiveness; b) the state of the patriarchy and the relations between the sexes in times of globalization.


  1. And so I come to my last point. The western religion of rights, as an imperial ideology of managing differences, as it defined itself in the 1990s, rapidly regressed after September 11th to become an imperialist religion of the civilization of the barbarians (here I use the two terms “empire” and “imperialism” with the meaning given by Toni Negri and Michael Hardt in their Empire). The attack on the Twin Towers seems to have swept away twenty years of earnest politically correct multiculturalism: anyone who is different is the enemy, and should no longer be understood in his or her diversity but conquered. In this war of conquest, rights are our weapons and freedom is the flag under which the troops are called to arms. Women hold a strategic place in the project, the litmus paper for its success: if, in recent decades, it was necessary to include them at all costs in the project for equality so as to demonstrate the universal validity of the democratic theorem, now it is a case of using weapons to free them from the barbarian patriarchy or from its potential threat, to demonstrate the power and universal invincibility of western freedom.

On the other side, the so-called “barbarian” side, things are not much better. Reaction to western domination proceeds as well, and in a mirror image, founded on an archaic basis of identity, mobilizing ethnic nationalisms, fundamentalisms, and an ideology of sacrifice that is completely alien to the maternal order of birth and of relations. Here, too, women are a strategic point of the project, which needs  their nationalisation and their re-embracing of fundamentalist values of cohesion  that cancel out the difference and the conflict between the sexes. On both sides, then, it becomes of strategic importance that the feminist position should maintain its asymmetry in relation to dominant trends: that it should not allow itself to be seduced neither, in the West, by the argument of rights as a vessel for western domination, nor, in the East, by self-sacrifice in the name of resistance to western power.

In my opinion both these projects are destined to fail, because they both try to restore the logic of identity and the friend-enemy schema in a world which is now globalized and which turns on the logic of differences, of contamination, of the blurring up of boundaries, of friendships, of enmities, and of lines of conflict. Above all, as far as we here are concerned, I think that they are both destined to fail because neither of them takes into account the revolution of female freedom and the collapse of the patriarchy that it triggered off. I realise that here I’m touching a controversial point in the feminist world. In fact it is possible to read what is happening as the revenge of the patriarchy in all three monotheistic religions, as a new and total virilization of public space that pushes us offstage, as a victory of the phallocentric symbolic order that forces us once again into aphasia.  Or it could be read, as I read it, as a patriarchal backlash that will not manage to stop the end of the patriarchy: not a sign of its health, but a cramp of its terminal illness.

It’s not just a case of seeing the glass half full instead of half empty: of staking more on the gains of freedom common to women in and outside the West (as the Italian magazine “Via Dogana” did, pondering the “freedom without emancipation” of women in non-democratic societies) than on the parallelism between the Talibans’ patriarchal fundamentalism and the secret returns to patriarchal fundamentalism in the West (as a group of Californian feminists wrote about after September 11th). I don’t want to give you a banal invitation to be optimistic about the destiny of the feminist revolution: we all know that no revolution is guaranteed against regression, and the Twentieth century taught us not to believe in the “magnificent and progressive destiny” of anything. Rather, it is analysing things that leads one to think of a female advantage and not a disadvantage; because everything in the global world, which is also a feminized world in which male power has lost the ability to seduce and draw approval, requires a swerve from the point of view of identity to that of difference, from the point of view of sovereignty to that of relations, from the mapping of borders to that of crossing borders; and freedom does not ask to be brought into the world with arms, but to be reborn.

I believe that the crisis of the patriarchy releases accumulated female energies, and male energies that won’t accept the imperative of destruction and self-destruction. Moreover, as a male friend of mine wrote in the pages of Il Manifesto, September 11th was “a crash with double phallic meaning”: cyborg-men against the Towers, a sort of catastrophe of the phallocentric imagery. And looking at the projects for the reconstruction of Manhattan, before Libeskind won the competition, it was clear that they don’t know what to put in the place of those two Towers, and they’re trying to rebuild them, only softer, more sinuous, curvaceous, almost as though it were impossible, truly impossible, to restore their lost symbolic power.