Elimination or Imprisonment — the Subaltern’s Dilemma

Stan Goff
8 min readJun 30, 2019


“A man would never set out to write a book on the peculiar situation of the human male. But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say: ‘I am a woman’; on this truth must be based all further discussion. A man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex; it goes without saying that he is a man. The terms masculine and feminine are used symmetrically only as a matter of form, as on legal papers. In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity. In the midst of an abstract discussion it is vexing to hear a man say: ‘You think thus and so because you are a woman’; but I know that my only defence is to reply: ‘I think thus and so because it is true,’ thereby removing my subjective self from the argument. It would be out of the question to reply: ‘And you think the contrary because you are a man’, for it is understood that the fact of being a man is no peculiarity. A man is in the right in being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong. It amounts to this: just as for the ancients there was an absolute vertical with reference to which the oblique was defined, so there is an absolute human type, the masculine. Woman has ovaries, a uterus: these peculiarities imprison her in her subjectivity, circumscribe her within the limits of her own nature.”

— Simone de Beauvoir, from The Second Sex (1949)

I’ve been spending some time with feminist philosopher Toril Moi lately (her work, I’ve never actually met her). She cites “Beauvoir’s dilemma,” sketched out above, in her theorizing about women writers. Moi is a professor of English, Philosophy, and Literature, after all. Moi describes this dilemma — which I’ll unpack in a moment — as being caught “between forced elimination and forced imprisonment” by what we now call “identity,” in her case being marked by society as “a woman,” but she notes that this dilemma goes beyond that particular identity with which she is concerned in developing theories about women as writers. That is to say, in many conditions of subalternity — being on the bottom of a power dipole — the subaltern subject (woman, here), unlike the normative subject (man, here), is caught between denying that identity altogether or embracing it so tightly that it becomes a straitjacket.

An example (from Moi, actually) is how, during the Obama Presidency, Obama had to embrace his identity as African American (a position he is “marked with from outside” in white-normative, white-supremacist society) to demonstrate his solidarity with African America in certain moments; and in other moments declare, “I am not a black President, but an American President.”

No white male President would be expected to do this dance. Whether the practice is politics or writing, the subaltern is immediately faced with a balancing act between being reduced to an identity on the one hand and feeling compelled to exercise solidarity with others “marked” in the same way as the practitioner. On the one hand, this person faces the question, “Did you forget where you came from?” On the other, the question one asks oneself: “Is my blackness or femaleness totalizing; does it define me?” And on the third hand, “Can you fit into the established norms and demonstrate your competence?”

Speaking for myself — a white male writer, the white male writer is never identified as male-writer the way “female-writers” are, and the way a black writer is frequently cited as a “black-writer,” but I ‘ll never be called a “white-writer.” As Moi points out, if I am in any way non-normative (in a society organized around “compulsory heterosexuality,” suppose I am gay), then I can be hyphenated as a gay-writer, for example, but never as a male-writer.

In other words, this dilemma between political duty (solidarity with like-subalterns) and identity-imprisonment (reduction to one aspect of identity) is a condition of oppression and partially definitive of it. There is always the danger of being insufficiently identified with other Others or being insufficiently neutral and universal to “count.”

This speaks to two things at once: white male normativity and what DuBois called “double consciousness,” that is, of the subaltern “always looking at one’s self through the eyes” of a racist or sexist society.

In Borderline, which I wrote about masculinity and militarism, I noted:

<<In every encounter in gendered society, and all known societies are gendered, the standpoint of the woman or women in each encounter is different from that of a man or men because of gendered (not merely biological) difference, and too often because of the domination and subjection that are attached to that difference. Men and women experience life differently, and to exclude the standpoint(s) of women is to render women invisible in order to treat the standpoint(s) of the men in those encounters as normative. If feminism has taught us anything, it has shown us that what was once considered modern universalism was in fact male universalism, and what was once considered modern objectivity was in fact male objectivity.>>

Which brings us to yet another dilemma, which is that the mere act of seeking any position in established society, when that society has been established and organized around white male normativity, the subaltern must demonstrate competence in the very norms that were developed around this subaltern subject’s exclusion, or othering. And so the tightrope act begins anew, between identity-imprisonment and identity-elimination. White guys like me aren’t confronted with this.

I’ll conclude with an excerpt from my last book, Tough Gynes — Violent Women in Film as Honorary Men, in a chapter on the film Michael Clayton, in which the villain, Karen Crowder, is played by Tilda Swinton.

<<In spite of the male misogyny that permeated this film and motivated her scenes, Swinton humanized them with her amazing per­formance. They confront us with a reality for women trying to make it in a “man’s world” that is difficult to acknowledge without setting the stage for certain ideological confusions. This is where I think we can usefully compare the fictional character of Karen Crowder with the real politician, Hillary Clinton.

Managing a public persona, especially for people driven by powerful ambitions, requires the most profound kind of compartmentalization — the separating out of one’s performances, even one’s professional duties and obligations, from all other aspects of one’s life that might be categorized as personal. There is no more emblematic role for compartmentalizing than that of the combat soldier, who might engage in the most barbarous kinds of violence and calculated cruelty in a war zone, then be expected to behave in dramatically different ways as a brother, husband, or father.

In an interview, Tilda Swinton explained how she got into character for Karen Crowder, saying, “For me, she is like a soldier. She wears a uni­form. She follows the flag. It is reductive to think this is only about lawyers or America. It’s about systems that require people to leave themselves out­side while following orders.” Swinton went on to describe Crowder as a “good girl” who wanted to do a good job, but in her need to prove herself surrendered to desperate measures. “My lawyer was at the screening . . .” said Swinton, “and I said to her, ‘Tell me this isn’t true.’ And she said, ‘Well, I believe it.’”

Hillary Clinton began running for the presidency of the United States sometime between 1992 and 2000. We can’t read her mind about exactly when she set her cap for it; but in 2000, she changed her address to New York for the express purpose of using her and former President Clinton’s political capital to run for the safe, soon-to-be vacated US Senate seat of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Few people doubt that this move was calculated as the logical springboard for an eventual presidential run, or she’d have run for Senate in Arkansas. When she did run in 2008, her willingness to perform in accordance with the cynical machinations of several of her husband’s former managers (winning her a reputation as a highly scripted, and even wooden candidate) backfired in South Carolina, and set Barack Obama on a course to defeat her for the nomination. Her consolation prize was to be appointed Secretary of State, whereupon she very predictably threw her hat back into the ring for 2016. What was going to be a party coronation ran into a roadblock as a populist revolt threw up Bernie Sand­ers, an avowed “democratic socialist,” as a serious primary opponent. The rest, we know, is history, as she was narrowly and stunningly defeated by the unlikely, terrifyingly stupid, and dimly venal Donald Trump.

Politics is gendered, and when anyone is running for President, the highly gendered question is raised, again and again, of who is tough enough (read: macho enough) to be a “strong Commander-in-Chief.” Clinton knew this, and as a Senator, she was already erring on the side of military action, voting yes on every military action proposed, including the disastrous war in Iraq. As Secretary of State, she hawkishly promoted the expansion of US attacks from two to seven nations, the (again disastrous) overthrow of Libya by military action, and even facilitating a coup d’etat against a demo­cratic government in Honduras. No one was going to out-macho her as Commander-in-Chief; and she amassed a body count to prove it.

Like Karen Crowder, though, where men could get away with doing these amoral man things in the tough “man’s world,” women were caught in a double-bind. On the one hand, when you commit big crimes, you deserve to be punished; and both women were willing to have others killed to get where they wanted to be. On the other hand — and this recalls the contra­dictions of the O. J. Simpson trial — the public sphere is infected with sexism (and racism), and there is little doubt that the difference between the way Clinton was treated for doing the same things that men had done was — for a substantial part of the population — based on a profound double-standard. So, for some the opposition to Clinton during the nomination process was based on opposition to particular policies that were similarly opposed in their male guises by Bush and Obama. For others, there was explicit sexism. And so many people found themselves simultaneously opposing Clinton’s policies while trying to defend her from attacks that were based on sexism, as well as defend themselves from those who took any opposition to Clin­ton as evidence that they were guilty of sexism.

In the film, Michael Clayton, speaking for myself, I had a glimpse, through Swinton’s portrayal, of the special price paid by women for that kind of ambition — and I felt empathy for the character as she rehearsed and rehearsed, fighting always with a kind of latent self-loathing at a per­ceived inadequacy drilled into a woman for her lifetime, lapsing into a terrible sadness between “takes” on her upcoming performance in that bathroom mirror. And it makes me wonder about Clinton, in her mo­ments of highly privatized vulnerability, and how unbearably sad she may actually be.>>



Stan Goff

Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” and “Tough Gynes.”