Published: April 1, 2001 By

[1]   In 1979 Barnard College sponsored “The Scholar and the Feminist VI: The Future of Difference,” a conference whose proceedings were anthologized into a volume called simply The Future of Difference, which, its post-preface proclaims, “has become something of an underground classic” (Eisenstein and Jardine, xiii). What is striking to a reader of this volume some twenty years later is the fact that while many of the essays engage with the issue of difference, and often rather cogently deploy a more complex than binary notion of sexual difference, i.e., one inflected by race, class, sexuality, etc, hardly any of them address the future. True, at moments some warnings turn up, as in Domna Stanton’s “Every precaution must be taken to guard against the ‘erection’ of a feminist critical imperialism that mouths dogma and prescribes the right way to package a feminist product” (79); or there are paradoxical forecasts disavowing the very possibility of novelty, as when Audre Lorde poetically posits that “there are no new ideas still waiting in the wings to save us as women, as human. There are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolations and recognitions from within ourselves, along with renewed courage to try them out” (127). But these proleptic glances offer no sustained engagement with the very idea of the future and even implicitly posit that the upcoming decades will bring more of the same.

[2]   That there are no new ideas (“only new ways of making them felt, of examining what our ideas really mean” [Lorde, 127]) perhaps all too presciently foretells the state of feminist theory in an anthology that appears nearly a score of years later. That 20 years has been defined as the span of a generation makes it not surprising that this volume is entitled Generations: Academic Feminists in Dialogue (Looser and Kaplan). Here too, as ifGenerations were a partial response to the speculation posed byThe Future of Difference, the title signals the preoccupations implied by the earlier anthology: a concern with time, projection into the future, and how it redounds on sexual difference. Yet once again, the concerns evince little consideration of the possibilities for future feminist theory, despite the passing of time and the changing of the guard (though I am certain most of the women in the first anthology will be quick to claim, as the peasant does inMonty Python and the Holy Grail, “I’m not dead yet!”).

[3]   But my concern here is neither to review anthologies of feminist essays nor to delineate a history of feminist thought (or even to prove you cannot, that we have been standing still). Nor am I simply interested in problematizing the intransigent and troubling paradigm of the generation; Judith Roof, among others, has already criticized feminists’ deployment of the figure of generations and demonstrated some of its limitations. Rather, I am interested in the problem of how feminists reflect on tomorrow’s world and whether we can project a feminist future in the midst of millennial mania. If feminism aims to reconfigure the sex-based distribution of power, which necessarily includes challenging how sexual differences operate or even are constituted, then we must forecast outcomes, transformations, and, of course, resistances. Popularized notions of “postfeminism” tend to project satisfaction with where women are now and emphasize how far we have come, thereby foreclosing upon more rigorously intellectual or even imaginative consideration of what we could do, where we could go. How do we plan for the implementation of feminist power–and to what extent is this a valid question in the age of postfeminist cynicism, do-me feminism, and other media myths that foreclose upon feminist efficacy?

[4]   To entertain these ideas, let me turn to the model of futurist reflection offered by psychoanalysis–namely, Jacques Lacan’s notion of the mirror stage. And if you will forgive my deferral of the primary text, I want to draw upon a reading of Lacan by the only feminist to be included in both Generations and The Future of Difference— Jane Gallop. Gallop’s reading of Lacan, in Reading Lacan, emphasizes the role of temporality at work in the mirror stage as an imbrication of future and past, anticipation and retroaction, that is best indicated by the future perfect tense–what will have been. Let me first, however, provide Gallop’s summary of the mechanism of the mirror stage:

in the mirror stage, the infant who has not yet mastered the upright posture and who is supported by either another person or some prosthetic device will, upon seeing herself in the mirror, ‘jubilantly assume’ the upright position. She thus finds in the mirror image ‘already there,’ a mastery that she will actually learn only later. The jubilation, the enthusiasm, is tied to the temporal dialectic by which she appears already to be what she will only later become. (78)

Gallop remarks that “the mirror stage is itself both an anticipation and a retroaction” and then observes that “The mirror stage is a turning point. . . . in the chronology of a self, but it is also the origin, the moment of constitution of that self” (79).

[5]   We might be tempted to think that feminism’s mirror stage was in the seventies, at that enthusiastic moment when women’s liberation seemed to present a totalized image of (political) agency, since from a post-millennial vantage, twenty years ago was when things were really happening, feminism was cresting and visibly, even jubilantly, effective, before the eighties crash into greed, selfishness, conflict, identity politics, and institutionalization. For instance, the very title of the volume, Conflicts in Feminism, rather aptly sums up the sense of academic feminism in the 1980s, and the editors’ conclusion comments on the place of conflict and disagreement in feminist discussions both within the volume and at large, noting that “Feminists in the late 1980s have become exceedingly accomplished at articulating theoretical positions on the basis of disagreement and opposition”. A few pages later this view is contrasted with a view of the seventies as idealistically and optimistically dreaming of a common language, an idealism which they concede was illusory (Hirsch and Keller, 370, 379). The shift indicates the prelapsarian narrative emerging at the close of the 1980s. And this view would corroborate Gallop’s elucidation of the mirror stage for Lacan as “a brief moment of doomed glory, a paradise lost” (85), insofar as the jubilation of projected mastery over one’s body gives way to anxiety and defensiveness. Certainly, we can see this in the conventional fable of the academic feminist critic’s progress: the jubilation at the early work of canon-breaching, press and journal founding, and tenuring becomes an anxiety of whether, as Nancy Miller put it, there is “life for a female academic after the feminist plot of tenure and promotion” (qtd. in Looser and Kaplan, 8) and produces a sense of outright disgruntlement that succeeding generations of young women do not appreciate what senior feminists have accomplished (see, for instance, Detloff’s account of a plenary talk at the 1995 National Women’s Studies Association conference).

[6]   Similarly, Gallop reads the mirror stage alongside the original prelapsarian story of Adam and Eve: “When Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge they anticipate mastery. But what they actually gain is a horrified recognition of their nakedness” (85). Where Gallop then reads this allegory in relation to the infant’s retroactive perception of his own inadequacy, the parallel to feminism suggests that feminists anticipated mastery–influence in the political and institutional fields–but all they have gained is a “horrified recognition of their nakedness.” The conflicts and vulnerabilities which marked feminism in the late seventies and eighties, or even the backlash and “postfeminism” of the nineties, are taken to signal the impotence of feminists to transform fully either society or the academy and thus exemplify this “nakedness”.

[7]   But instead of this narrative, I posit that we are only now in the midst of feminism’s mirror stage, and I do so to suggest that we reconsider the narrative of feminist progress and the sense of closure such narrative presents or projects. If now is feminism’s mirror stage, then we are caught up in a temporally ambivalent moment, between anticipation and retroaction, but it is also a constitutive moment. On this view, as we look back on the debris of the previous decades we are experiencing what Lacan called “le corps morcelé,” which Gallop translates for her reading as the “body in bits and pieces” (79). I want to resist this translation to tarry with the double meaning of “corps” not as the individual human organism, but definition no. 2 in Le Robert, “principal party” or no. 3, “Group organized along an institutional plan”–feminism’s organized association, fragmented, parceled out, in bits and pieces.

[8]   By reading feminism through the looking glass this way I rehearse a gesture that is paradigmatically Freudian–the recapitulation in the group of traits in the individual. And certainly the conclusion of Gallop’s reading indicates–albeit quite differently–that reading Freud is bound up with reading Lacan, just as much as anticipation and retroaction are intricated in Lacan’s articulation of the mirror stage. My Freudian gesture suggests a fractal or holographic view of the world, where differences are simply those of scale rather than essence, that the whole might be located and even replicated somewhere in the parts. It is a peculiarly postmodern view, a different understanding of what “whole” might mean, once our culture has digested the lessons of chaos theory, string theory, the larger cultural shift to synecdoche as a result of the postmodern privileging of code (whether genetic’s quaternary or computer’s binary) and decentered networks of high-speed electronic communications. Feminism in the age of the digital. So if the feminist corpus has been morcelé, it may be in response to –or parcel of– a paradigm shift in the culture at large. The changes brought about by the information age (this latest stage of it) and digital technology bear upon how we conceive of ourselves, politics, subjectivity, knowledge–to mention only a few pressure points.

[9]   Gallop’s reading of the corps morcelé–“a Lacanian term for a violently non-totalized body image” (79)–elucidates the nature of the mirror stage as simultaneously a turning point and constitutive moment, for the mirror stage is where the “body in bits and pieces” is projected into a whole, if proto, self. My contention that we are only now in the mirror stage hinges on this reading’s emphasis on the retroactive perception of fragmentation–for that is certainly where we are now in feminism. In rushing past the mirror stage, the very idea of feminist generations applies a paradigm that is already loaded with connotations of rifts and divisiveness, as if to assimilate the conflicts in feminism into a more culturally accepted, or even oedipal, model. In its assimilation, this generational paradigm also inscribes and contains struggle and conflictwithinfeminism rather than direct it outward against patriarchal structures (of which the oedipal model is one). The rhetorical constitution of this divisiveness, however, presupposes a desire, a projection, for a whole, as if we perceive in the mirror an image of unity that we hope one day to embody. My question is rather how we can reinterpret the projected wholeness so that it does not conform to totalizing paradigms, like the oedipal struggle between generations, but rather enables us to find a different coherence or unity in fragmentary patterns, like those of digital postmodernism and network cultures. Indeed, the mirror stage as the moment of the constitution of the ego as fiction invites analogy with postmodern fiction’s open-ended structure, its resolute refusal to accede to a single culmination, in contrast to classical narrative’s drives towards a definitive resolution.

[10]   Lacan reminds us that the agency posited by the infant before the mirror is a misrecognition, a misreading. Yet as Gallop’s reading emphasizes, this “classic gesture of the self,” of méconnaisance, is “the founding moment of the imaginary mode, the belief in a projected image” (81). For Gallop what is important is less the fictionality of this mode, but “the temporal dialectic that is at once anticipatory and retroactive” (81). Translating Gallop into the phylogenic mode, feminism is constituted through anticipating what it will become, and then this anticipatory model is used to gage what was before. If, because it is in the mirror stage, feminism is constituted simultaneously by anticipating what it will become and struggling with the sense that its past and present is fragmented, then the question for feminism is necessarily a question of a future, and particularly of how we should understand the mastery and totality projected by the infant in the mirror. Is there, in short, only one interpretation, one recognition, of our projected mastery?

[11]   What I find lacking in feminism today is a sense not only of the perfect future, but also simply of the future perfect. What will we have become, if the perfect future–however misrecognized–is given over to cynical resignation, which seems to be the successor zeitgeist of the idealism of the sixties and seventies, at least by popular account? More importantly, who would this future be perfect for? This question is the one that strikes me as most lost in the navel-gazing about feminist generations. By navel-gazing, I do not entirely mean in the dismissive sense of self-involved contemplation, but also in the sense of looking at where we came from, for the navel is the mark of connection to one’s origin, the bodily tie to one’s mother. Only in a very limited sense is it useful to look to ourselves in reflecting on where we came from; remember that Freud called the illegible part of the dream rebus–that which could never be pursued into interpretation–the navel of the dream.

[12]   Feminism, therefore, needs an object, not a navel, or even a subject, because as a politically engaged movement it is an object relation, just as the mirror stage is. Indeed, precisely what we misrecognize in the mirror stage is thinking it is a subject- rather than an object-relation. I suggest that this méconnaisance holds true for feminism as well, for it also is a structure that only on the surface is about individuals. The mirror-stage fiction establishes a sense of how to control oneself when confronted by another, not simply how to master one’s own domain. It is thus a structure of negotiating conflict, figured in relation to an object, much like feminism is a critique that negotiates social disparities, often figured in relation to specific problems. The radical alterity of an object, the fact that it is irreducibly indifferent to subjects, means it is not susceptible to the narcissistic appropriations and dominations that play out in subject-focused relations. The shift of concern from navel to object, in other words, is not simply about getting tenure for oneself, or even jobs for one’s students, but transforming the conditions of possibility–analyzing and intervening in the constitution of the social rhetoric, in the pursuit of political reform–so that people we have not even begun to imagine can participate and flourish.

[13]   This directive is not simply a reminder, a la Kahlil Gibran, that “your children are not your children,” but rather a question of building for difference. Gayatri Spivak used this notion in a 1989 interview about essentialism with Ellen Rooney, but even though the text and the usured topic of essentialism have been around awhile, they bear consideration in light of feminism’s future. Working through how a theoretical awareness of contingency might conjoin with practical political concerns, Spivak states:

my interest as a teacher and in some ways as an activist is to build for difference, in other words to think of what we might be doing or saying strategically, sometimes tactically, within a very powerful institutional structure. . . . It seems to me that vigilance, what I call building for difference, rather than keeping ourselves clean by being whatever it is to be an anti-essentialist, that has taken on much greater emphasis for me at this point. (Spivak 1989, 128)

[14]   In the context of the interview, “building for difference” is rhetorically imbricated with “vigilance” and “strategic essentialism”; this linkage re-orders our understanding of how and why essentialism operates, and marks the shift from a scholarly epistemology, one that is interested in defining, determining, and maintaining static knowledge, to a teacherly approach, which is less interested in taking sides or preserving purity and more engaged in questioning and shifting relations. The shift in terms marks at the rhetorical level an opening up of the definition of essentialism, or even strategic essentialism, toward the future, and also toward a productive contingency and incompleteness. Spivak’s alignment of the roles of teacher and activist in the passage above, moreover, suggest that these positions may offer better vantage on the future of feminism than the “scholar ” who headlined the Barnard conference. (It is important to note, however, that in the context of the Barnard conference, the juxtaposition of the scholar and the feminist was an important political intervention, since feminist studies had not yet been institutionalized, and many feminist scholars felt an untenable external pressure to separate their scholarship from feminism. See Gould.) The distinction between the scholar’s and the teacher’s temporal orientations–toward the past and future, respectively–also provides leverage out of the temptations of the generational model, if we take seriously the difference between students and their teachers and the temporal gradations among classes of students over the course of a teacher’s career. The successful combination of teaching and scholarship, then, integrates the look back with a look forward.

[15]   Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that in a later version of the interview, Spivak strikes the temporal note largely unheard in theFuture of Difference. Referring back to her initial enunciation of the phrase “building for difference,” she notes:

the sense of audience is already assuming that the future is simply a future present. The most radical challenge of deconstruction is that notion of thought being a blank part of the text given over to a future that is not just a future present but always a future anterior [aka future perfect]. It never will be, but always will have been. . . . That is why what I cannot imagine stands guard over everything that I must/can do, think, live. (Spivak 1993, 22)


Spivak’s critique of political strategy hinges upon a distinction in tense and thus in temporal conception that bears consideration not only for deconstruction at its height (her concern) but also for feminism in the mirror stage, in the moment when it has become possible to be both a feminist and a scholar.


[16]   The recurrence of the future perfect here serves to reinforce the claim for building for difference: the pursuit of a political object radically challenges us to think beyond a simple past, present, or future, to consider how things will have been once the object is attained. To build for difference does not mean simply looking ahead, but to be open to not fully controlling that for which one is building. It shifts our focus away from accounting for difference by individual elements and towards ratifying difference through systemic structures that make events and things possible. The classic subject-object distinction, for example, is both a difference and a relation constituted through the structure (and its persistent reiteration) of the mirror stage, and not through the inherent qualities of the individual elements of baby, image, and glass. Political objects, similarly, would be the creation of opportunities, situations, connections, or juxtapositions–an admittedly more difficult challenge, as the recent successes of reactionary efforts to overturn affirmative action indicate, but precisely the intellectual work necessary to do in order to have a feminist future. In drawing on Spivak’s notion here, I want to emphasize how thinking about feminism in its mirror stage as an object-relation requires us to understand the incompleteness of our knowledge or control of the object. The tension between retroaction and anticipatory action compels a certain fetishistic imagination, ambivalently acknowledging how things are and how they could be different, but also oscillating between projecting mastery and relinquishing it, projecting the demise of one’s full powers. The future perfect is always haunted by the past, not only its power to shape but the termination of that power. Reinventing unity and mastery in postmodern culture necessarily poses the challenge of thinking in the future perfect, because the age of the digital has carved up space into networks and time into processing speed; the wholeness of monolithic linear time can no longer be sustained. The emphasis must shift from the object to the relations in which it is embedded, and those relations must be thought across time as well as space. Because it emphasizes this network of connections, the hybrid spatio-temporal destination of the future perfect is the perfect tense for the technology–and the politics–of our future.

[17]   While returning us to the same tense that Gallop called our attention to, Spivak’s comments also elucidate a crucial juncture of temporality and difference that is central to our understanding of the mirror stage. If feminism is in its mirror stage, strung between the poles of the corps morcelé of the retroactive glance and anxiety of influence of the anticipatory glance, it has also been stymied in the mire of difference, and thus of the subjective problems of recognition and misrecognition. Focusing on difference anchors us in a perpetual present. Indeed, the méconnaissance of the Future of Difference is precisely that difference has no future; it is a synchronic notion. And the very idea of generations, which purports to answer the implicit question, what is the future of difference? a generation later, projects difference into a temporal, diachronic dimension. With that projection is no longer simply difference (which can only be measured synchronically, as in comparing the generational position of Jane Gallop of Future to Jane Gallop ofGenerations), but more importantly change.

[18]   And change is the very thing that seems to have dropped out of the equation. In the subjective miasma of difference we have lost our objective of change. I want this claim to resonate with a confluence of meanings for objective: as an aim, as an epistemological vantage, and as characteristic of being an object, ignoring the slippage from noun to adjective. While it risks playing into the patriarchal myth of objectivity that feminist epistemologists like Lorraine Code have amply demonstrated is a myth that has been used to render women (among others) epistemologically unsound and invalid, objectivity also offers us an ontological difference, an exterior relation or a triangulated position that enables us to measure, to take stock. Paying attention to the idea of the object, role of the mirror, elucidates the quicksilver reversal of sameness and difference, that what seems same is only masquerading as same. Gallop, for instance, ponders the question “how does one distinguish between the mirror and the mirror image?” (62). Certainly this question is valid for the subject of speculation, enthralled with the image in the mirror, and proceeding entirely form the point of view of a subject, but if this impersonal “one” is positioned fetishistically askance of the mirror, interested in it as an object, it is much easier to act on Gallop’s charge “to look into the mirror and see not the image but the mirror itself” (62). So it is in this triangulated sense, this object-privileging vantage askew through which we gain a more complex sense of the impurity of the object’s objectness, its contamination by subjectivity, that I employ the notion of objectivity.

[19]   The appreciation of the mirror as object, to push the metaphor, reminds us that however deployed as a metaphor for likeness or sameness, mirrors are actually not at all about similarity, since there is ontological difference (at the very least, ontological, but also epistemological, representational, and political differences) between the subject of the mirror’s reflection (image) and the subject reflected before the mirror. Indeed, this difference is crucial for Lacan; his digression on the need of a particular species of bird to perceive another of its species in order to mature emphasizes that it is not the function of the mirror so much as the function of specularity, the seeing someone irreducibly other and yet recognizably similar. The child’s jubilation occurs as she recognizes the image as herself, and yet her disappointment occurs in her recognition that the projected image–with its power over its body–is not herself. I emphasize this objective paradox in order to show how difference in the mirror stage is not purely temporal, however much it is contaminated by projections through time, but also synchronic and spatial. The future perfect of feminism’s mirror stage invites us to shift from this specular function to speculation by considering where we are and its potential disjunction from where we will have been.

[20]   Objectivity need not be an purely impersonal vantage, moreover–if by impersonal we do not narrowly mean cold and unsympathetic. The impersonal can be political, too. If we are passionate in our object–the model for which is quite literally fetishism–we can hardly be indifferent, yet passion need not be personal–as fetishism shows by its contrast to relations between subjects (see McCallum). The drive to activism, to textual production, to teaching–all exemplify impersonal passions, compulsions that at their best take us out of ourselves and alter the world. Likewise, the task for a future feminist theory is change–rethinking the assumptions that structure our practice to make it constantly shifting, pushing, remapping the possible productive connections for those ahead. A future feminist practice should continue to implement creatively what our theoretical glance askance shows us, continue to right the image. And there is much to be righted, for if feminism has been indifferent to change, it may be because little has changed: does sexual difference still make a difference to how much one earns, what work one does, the degree of responsibility for children, how much power and what kind is channeled to one, for example? If we are not living in a meritocracy that provides comparable supports and cultivation of each member’s talents, then are we living in a feminist world? And while we have neither time nor energy enough to live in such a world–should this ideal even be viable–does that mean we should cease striving for it?

[21]   While I hate to lapse into maudlin optimism, I am nonetheless concerned with what will become of feminism, since feminism has been so remarkably unbecoming, in its metadebates about trashing or conflicts among feminists. There is much to learn from feminist theory and practice, especially in terms of questioning assumptions, maintaining openness to multifaceted interpretations, and passionately committing to a vision of a different, better world. Indeed, the very power structure of early seventies feminist organizations–from consciousness-raising groups to bookstores–stood against totalizing and hierarchical configurations, and would seem particularly amenable to a postmodernist view, in their fragmented yet widely networked infiltration of mainstream society. Should we be cautioned that the mirror stage is, despite my focus on the first term, only a stage? When this infant grows up, when this baby has come a long way, who will she be?

[22]   If the mirror stage is only a stage, that colloquialism implies that it is something to go through, only the beginning rather than the end. That the stage involves an infant’s development reinforces the sense of being at the beginning. So let me, also, return to what will now have become my beginning, Gallop’s reading of the mirror stage. Her chapter elucidates how the mirror stage raises the question of where to begin–indeed, it is entitled “Where to Begin?”. This question is not simply the problem of temporality I already discussed, but a larger problem of intellectual inquiry. Reading Freud’s “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes” alongside Lacan’s mirror stage essay and thereby drawing a parallel between the two psychoanalysts’ narratives of infant development, Gallop also brings out Freud’s parallel between an infant subject and an infant science, viz, psychoanalysis. The basis of each is laid retroactively; Gallop notes that they are fictions, and the issue of where to begin is necessarily bound up in the retroactive constitution of our foundational conventions, which must be continually open to revision and reassessment in order to be productive and effective. I suggest that, similarly, the question for feminism now, in its mirror stage, is precisely where to begin, with the understanding that we both have already begun and will have begun, that beginning is not about attributing origin but seizing opportunity.

[23]   For Gallop, the question where to begin? serves a number of different rhetorical purposes. Primarily and throughout the chapter, she uses it to destabilize the historical or chronological primacy of texts: which version of Lacan’s paper, its place in Ecrits, or Freud’s text in relation to Lacan’s, which also becomes a question of the order of Reading Lacan in relation to reading Lacan. Most powerfully, however, this question is the instrument sustaining her argument that we accept the contingency of foundations of the self and projects of scientific inquiry (in the broadest sense that would also include the human sciences). Finally, as I noted, the query also serves as the title of the chapter, even though the chapter comes just before the very middle of the book–the third of seven chapters, pages 74-92 of a 187-page book. These various rhetorical deployments of the question itself enact the fact that there is no place to begin, or at least no one, singular site. It is a beginning morcelé. Thus the question “where to begin?” is precisely the query that haunts our feminist practice at the dawn of the new millenium. This is why the figure of generations misdirects us, induces méconnaissance–because it focuses our attention backwards, like the angel of history, when we should be asking where to begin?

[24]   I could be programmatic and point out some places to begin within academia: salary equity for women faculty, for instance, or more lines in feminist studies to accommodate the bright young feminists Devoney Looser describes to E. Ann Kaplan in their introduction to Generations, or better implementation of measures to redress employment discrimination that Ann Kibbey charted recently in Concerns (1999). Each of these is important, but they are also, no doubt, just as familiar in their typology. So I cannot tell you where to begin, because it is already too well known, and you may be too tired or overwhelmed or vulnerable to begin, exhausted by the end of a long day and old struggles rather than fresh for new challenges. In other words, you may think that we had gotten past beginning.

[25]   And this is the most important lesson that the mirror stage can teach us: that as long as we project an idealized movement–which is to say, as long as we are feminists in a non-feminist world, or infants without full motor control–we live in the mirror stage’s paradoxical temporality and spatiality. It is a stage, but less a developmental one than a theatrical space.

[26]   This paranomasia may seem to be a cheap ploy, a suspect linguistic sleight of hand, but it is a shift that I think we need to take seriously as we think about the role of feminist theory in feminism’s future. In its capacity to project a world that is both of our reality and not, feminist theory is necessary for feminist reflection. The pun marks a shift that is crucial to a better understanding of where we are in our reflections before the mirror. Emphasizing the stage in feminism’s mirror stage might only reinforce the sense that feminism is not exactly fashionable, even in a cultural moment when style is all about raiding prior cultural moments. In fact, the model of the mirror stage risks seeming only too compatible with the generational model’s divvying up the territory into consumable packages. The capitalist pitfalls of this taxonomizing are evident in the current moment, when the seventies have come back as a de-politicized retro mode of cutting-edge consumption for a new generation. Insofar as a resurgence of progressive politics from the seventies has also registered on the mainstream radar, these movements risk becoming either inscrutable or coopted by consumerism. But do we want feminism to be consumed? If not, perhaps the best strategy to counter the dangerous collusion with a prevailing capitalist consumption of history is to change the temporal direction of our attention, to look forward against the retro and regressive zeitgeist.

[27]   At the same time, the mirror stage’s comparison with the infant too strongly connects a political movement with a person and her development. In the context of a discussion of feminist generations, the correlation becomes overwhelmingly inscribed with familial and developmental resonances of the infant before the mirror. My own discussion of the rhetoric of beginning, in particular, which spins this “beginning” as a seductive hope that we are in fact not at the end of feminism, is no less apt to reinforce the developmental connotation of the infant image. Because these resonances are so powerful and resound so strongly in our culture, I am concerned that my argument may too easily be rendered as a narrative of the development of subjectivity, and that seduced by the comforts of the familial and the narrative–and the illusion of wholeness they may proffer–we would not risk speculation about the paradigm’s promising associations and conjunctions, the very kind of thinking and activity we need to be doing.

[28]   My interest in the paradoxical temporality of the experience of the mirror stage, therefore, is its usefulness for modeling the relation between agency and desire under circumstances of incomplete attainment of power. In being in the mirror stage, feminists are not at the beginning of a progressive evolution toward more refined subjectivity. At most, we are at a turning point, but even then this turning point is not situated within a developmental frame. Rather, the point of feminism being in the mirror stage is that we are struggling to marshall our forces for an effective intervention in a case where our power is and will be incomplete, where political progress is reflected only as in a hall of mirrors: there is a infinite regression of the origin, and an abyssal progression toward the goal.

[29]   The theatrical stage, then, as the site where the performance will have taken place–not just once but for the entire run of the show–offers the metaphorical structure for understanding the mirror stages role in post-millennial feminist thought: the ambivalent temporality of projection and retroaction is the framework in which we can act, and in which we act not just once but repeatedly. The stage provides a mutable and contingent organization, a context for the shifting plasticity and potentially radical differentiation of one production from another; it thus offers a cogent example of a disconnected unity, where one show has no necessary reference to another, nor any necessary disjunction from another, depending on how the space is employed. The theatricality of the mirror-stage theory also invites a shift out of the narrative frame which subtends the developmental trajectory, without abandoning altogether the imaginative possibilities of fiction. Finally, the specularity of the theatre is more like the refracted specular relations of the hall of mirrors than the single infant and her reflection. And when, as happens as early as Shakespeare, the play becomes a play within a play, the hall of mirrors’ mise-en-abyme structure becomes manifest. Regardless, the issue of who’s watching, from what vantage, with what motive are always at stake onstage. While our speculation can roam freely around the stage, rather than being enthralled with one central image, the players can also direct attention to one point or another. Yet however much an audience might seem passively consuming from behind the fourth wall, their very presence–and the differences among audiences–reciprocally alters the performance, even if only slightly.

[30]   If the mirror stage sketches for us the complexities of the individual’s networks of identification, desire, and identity, the theatrical space offers an even more nuanced matrix of directed dynamics through which we collectively participate in others’ identities, lives, and desires. Like the infant of the mirror stage, who is both active and passive before the mirror, the audience, stage crew, and actors in a theatrical performance are ambivalent participants, believing and not believing, sucked into the scene and standing outside it, forging ahead nonetheless to enact the dream. In this staging, the aim is less to unite into a singular movement than to connect disparate factions as they go their own ways, and the resulting fragmentation makes the transformation possible rather than obstructs it.

[31]   We anticipate that we will have begun, and yet we are always glancing back and realizing that all we have been is in pieces. We might even suspect, because of the legend of Lot’s wife, that being in pieces is punishment for looking back, and that fragmentation redounds upon us. But however salient fragmentation may be, the point of that story hinges on prohibition and violation. And while for this story I would not prohibit the retroactive gaze, my claim is that we not simply look back, or ahead, but that we adopt a fetishistic, ambivalent political vantage, a look askew, from which we can see feminism’s corps marching to their own drummers (as a corps Marseillaises?) and simultaneously bear in mind the puissant autonomy promised in the projected image, which is not a total view but a series of connections that brings together dispersed and divergent elements. Most importantly, because of this paradoxical structure, we can come to understand that the projected unity is not a monolithic construction–as, indeed the Lacanian subject is not–but a different kind of wholeness or totality for feminists of the information age: the unity of a network.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to the Women’s Caucus of the M/MLA who selected an earlier version of this essay for the best paper award at the 1999 conference. I also appreciate the comments which helped shape this essay from Marilyn Frye, Ellen Pollak, Steve Rachman, Judith Roof, Jeffrey Williams, and especially Ann Veronica Simon.



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