Liz Bondi & Joyce Davidson. Handbook of Cultural Geography. Editor: Kay Anderson, Mona Domosh, Steve Pile, Nigel Thrift. Sage Publications. 2003.
This chapter examines gender as an aspect of subjectivity that is both taken for granted and extraordinarily elusive. We illustrate the power of gender categories both experientially and theoretically, arguing that some kind of gender binary is very deeply woven into the fabric of cultural life. At the same time we illustrate how gender is always bound up with other dimensions of human experience and subjectivity including those described by such terms as class, race, sexuality, age and so on. That gender is inseparable from these contributes to its elusiveness: the meaning(s) of gender cannot be isolated from the specificities of class, race and so on. Moreover, although the categories ‘men’ and ‘women’ seem readily distinguishable from one another, on closer inspection it turns out to be impossible to locate the source of this distinction unambiguously. Gender therefore poses us with puzzles. It is a profoundly influential concept through which our lives are marked and lived, but if we scratch the surface of its meanings perplexing questions and confusions are revealed.
The combination of familiarity and elusive-ness that characterizes gender can be understood in terms of the influence of claims to knowledge that purport to be universal in scope, which are characteristic of dominant traditions of western, anglophone thought. Such claims have been subject to extensive criticism by feminists among others, who have pointed to biases implicit in statements about people ‘in general’ that treat as universal the experiences of some (Gilligan, 1982), and to the very particular kind of human subject (typically white, male, western, affluent, heterosexual, able-bodied, adult) invoked in the making of such claims (Lloyd, 1984; Nicholson, 1990). Criticisms do not, however, demolish patterns of thought overnight. Indeed critiques of universal knowledge claims necessarily draw on the very traditions they criticize. Nowhere is this clearer than in feminist discussions of gender: feminists cannot avoid using gender categories but at the same time repeatedly question their validity and meaning (Weir, 1997).
One of the most influential responses to this dilemma is to ‘situate’ and pluralize claims to knowledge, including those advanced by others and by ourselves (for a classic statement see Haraway, 1988). Situating or locating gender (and any other potentially or purportedly universal concept) requires both a cultural and a geographical imagination: it requires that we attend to particular meanings in particular contexts, and it problematizes conceptualizations of space as well as gender. This chapter aims to illustrate and to extend the application of such an imagination, and it does so by drawing out some of the ideas about human subjects and the spatialities of subjectivities invoked in cultural geography’s engagements with gender. We begin this task by elaborating and situating our claim about the pervasive and problematic qualities of gender. We then explore in greater depth four themes that emerge from this account, and which illustrate the range of, and some key directions in, current research about gender in and around the specialism of cultural geography. Our account is necessarily a positioned one and arises specifically from our own commitment to, and participation in, the development of feminist perspectives in human geography in general and in cultural geography in particular (Bondi et al., 2002). As we will illustrate, ‘feminism’ is itself multifaceted and contested, but we assume throughout that concepts and practices of gender are bound up with the exercise of power.
The differentiation of human beings by gender is so powerful and pervasive that it is very difficult to imagine (or write about) a person without drawing upon one of the two labels ‘male’ and ‘female’ either implicitly or explicitly. In western societies (and in many non-western societies) most of us allocate people to one category or the other so routinely and so habitually that we become aware of our practice only when confronted by a body or a voice or a name that we cannot categorize with confidence. Think, for example, of the curiosity aroused by chance encounters—maybe walking on a city street or through a mall—with individuals whose appearance prompts us to question whether they are male or female. Or think of the surprise at discovering that the voice heard as ‘male’ turns out to belong to a woman (or vice versa). Note also how particular contexts are called into play by our injunction to imagine a particular person, indicating how our ascription of gender categories is necessarily situated culturally and geographically. Reflecting on gender in these ways also renders untenable any clear distinction between ‘doing’ and ‘theorizing’: gender is equally about our ideas, practices and reflections about ourselves and others in a way that weaves these aspects together (Ahmed, 1998). This understanding of theory as practice is very influential within feminist politics and feminist geography (Katz, 1994; 1996; Kobayashi, 1994; McDowell, 1992), and is increasingly influential in discussions about reflexivity and activism in cultural geography (Blomley, 1994; Maxey, 1999).
The taken-for-grantedness of gender categories has often been just as powerful within research and scholarship as elsewhere. But this has not gone unchallenged. Feminist geographers have worked hard to denaturalize gender, with important consequences throughout human geography including the field of cultural geography. Denaturalizing gender has entailed demonstrating implicit and naturalizing assumptions within existing work, thereby opening up new questions for investigation. Since the mid 1970s, feminist geographers have pointed to two consequences of the widespread failure to problematize gender. First, there has been a strong tendency to neglect the perspectives and concerns of certain groups, either by omission or by stereotyping, especially those different from, other than and disadvantaged relative to the groups from whom the majority of geographers are drawn. Gender is one aspect of this: most geographers, and particularly ‘powerful’ geographers, are men, and women have been marginalized in terms of the substance and practice of geographical research (Hayford, 1973; McDowell, 1979; McDowell and Peake, 1990; Monk and Hanson, 1982; Tivers, 1978). Secondly, as well as reinforcing the disadvantage and devaluation underpinning this neglect, failure to problematize gender has undermined geographical thought quite generally, generating ‘androcentric’ or ‘masculinist’ claims to knowledge that purport universality (Rose, 1993; Women and Geography Study Group of the IBG, 1984).
These critiques have paved the way for a substantial and wide-ranging body of work which focuses in a variety of ways on the gendering of human lives and human geographies. Much of this work has been informed, and often inspired, by political and moral commitments, for example to challenge gender and other inequalities, or to contribute to emancipatory or liberatory goals. Such commitments are suggestive of ‘Enlightenment’ ways of thinking about issues of equality, justice, self-determination and so on, in the sense of invoking universal ideas about human life and human values. This prompts interpretations of feminism as a modern political movement dependent on metanarratives of progress. But against this are the poststructuralist and post-Enlightenment perspectives with which critiques of universal knowledge claims are more commonly associated, which have been deeply influential in cultural geography and which we have also suggested are influential in understandings of gender. We would argue that feminist perspectives need to deploy both Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment ways of thinking (Bondi, 1990; Bondi and Domosh, 1992; Deutsche, 1991; Massey, 1991; McDowell, 1991; Morris, 1988; Soper, 1990) and in so doing have the potential to foster productive paradoxes (Rose, 1993).
In the remainder of this chapter we examine in more detail the notions of subjectivity invoked in analyses of gender within and around the field of cultural geography. There already exist several pertinent reviews, which offer particular accounts of conceptualizations of gender. For example, McDowell (1993a; 1993b; also see McDowell, 1999; McDowell and Sharp, 1997) traces the development of feminist perspectives in geography, emphasizing the growing influence of poststructuralist ideas and associating this with the so-called cultural turn. Implicit in McDowell’s account is a view that feminist geography has progressed from important but necessarily less sophisticated understandings towards more powerful and nuanced engagements with gender. The Women and Geography Study Group (1997) stress the existence of diverse uses of the concept of gender among feminist geographers, and acknowledge some of the political tensions around its theorization. We aim to explore important aspects of such debates by organizing our remarks in terms of four themes or strands of feminist politics, concerned with gender equality, women’s autonomy, multiple differences and the deconstruction of categories, which between them straddle some of the tensions between Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment ways of thinking (Warner, 2000). We provide an overview of the knowledges generated within the domain of cultural geography by each of these themes, drawing out the conceptualizations of the (gendered) human subjects invoked. We also attend to the concepts of space brought into play by different ideas about gender, thereby linking the themes of equality, autonomy, difference and deconstruction associated with feminist politics to the problematics of cultural geography.
We have been using the term ‘gender’ in a way that is peculiar to the English language and which cannot readily be translated into other languages, even those with words deriving from the same linguistic root, such as Spanish and French (Haraway, 1991; Moi, 1999; Widerberg, 1999). Moreover, it is a usage traceable to particular contexts and purposes, and redolent of particular ways of thinking about the politics and subjects of feminism. To elaborate, in English the term ‘gender’ has become deeply and problematically bound up with the idea of a distinction between sex and gender. In feminist writings, this distinction is widely attributed to research by Robert Stoller (1968) concerned with psychological aspects of transsexualism. In his work as a psychiatrist he gathered information about individuals seeking surgery to change sex, who typically reported experiencing a profound mismatch between their biological categorization as male (or more rarely as female) and their own sense of themselves. Theorizing this mismatch, he argued that our understandings of ourselves as male or as female arise culturally through processes independent of the biology or morphology of our bodies. While these different dimensions of definition often correspond, there is nothing necessary or causal about this. He suggested that the cultural form of differentiation and identification be termed ‘gender,’ while the biological difference be termed ‘sex.’ Throughout his work on transsexualism he insisted on the psychological primacy of (cultural) gender over (biological) sex (Stoller, 1985).
Second-wave feminist scholarship began to emerge at much the same time as Stoller’s original research, and the notion that differences between women and men were attributable primarily to cultural processes rather than to biological givens was argued widely and powerfully, often drawing on Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that ‘One is not born but rather becomes a woman’ (1997: 295). A common theme in feminist arguments that sought to denaturalize assumptions about women and men concerned the absence of any binary distinctions in biological attributes associated with ‘sex’: feminists drew on evidence about chromosomal, hormonal and other patterns to argue that the mutually exclusive categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ are imposed on, rather than given by, nature (Cream, 1995; Greer, 1971). In parallel with this, feminists pointed to various sources of cross-cultural and historical evidence that revealed wide variations in the allocation of tasks between women and men, and in the attributes imputed to women and men, evidence that endorsed the argument that differentiation between male and female has much more to do with culture than biology (Moore, 1988; 1994). Early anglophone feminist writers did not use the term ‘gender’ (Firestone, 1972; Mitchell, 1971), until Ann Oakley (1972) took up Stoller’s notion of a distinction between (biological) sex and (cultural) gender. Thereafter this understanding of the term ‘gender’ swiftly took hold, so that by the time the Women and Geography Study Group of the IBG published their landmark text Geography and Gender this usage was offered unproblematically:
We use the term ‘gender’ to refer to socially created distinctions between masculinity and femininity, while the term ‘sex’ is used to refer to biological distinctions between men and women. (1984: 21, emphasis in original)
This line of argument has been of profound importance in the development of western, anglophone feminism(s). If the major differences between women and men are cultural rather than biological in origin, then the ways in which women are disadvantaged relative to men are not given in nature but are cultural in origin, maintained through the exercise of power, and can be modified through social and political means. In this way the sex-gender distinction has been crucial for feminists working for the emancipation of women.
The demands for equality associated with this application of the sex-gender distinction can be traced historically to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinking of Mary Wollstonecraft and the tradition of liberal humanism. Within feminist versions of this tradition, what women and men share by virtue of their common humanity is of much greater importance than the ways in which they differ, and constitutes the basis for a politics of equality, including, for example, equal citizenship rights. Liberal humanism advances an understanding of the adult human subject as a coherent, integrated, bounded, autonomous being capable of self-direction, self-control and so on: liberal feminists from Wollstonecraft onwards have argued that these characteristics apply as much to women as to men but that women have been prevented from realizing their full potential by outmoded assumptions expressed in limitations on their opportunities for education, for economic independence and so on.
Arguments for equality between men and women have, of course, been enormously influential within cultural geography. Moreover, while the particular understanding of the human subject associated with liberal humanism has been subject to criticism, the notion of equality has not been relinquished. On the contrary, the politics of equality remain of the utmost importance in the cultural world with which geographers engage, and within the practice of cultural geography.
Two closely related features of the vision of subjectivity invoked by the theme of equality have been particularly productive for cultural geography, namely the question of where gender is understood to reside, and the way the relationship between subject and environment is conceptualized. According to the liberal feminist tradition, gender contributes nothing fundamental to human subjectivity. Instead it operates as a kind of adornment, but one which is prone to be regarded as more significant than it is (which is why gender inequalities persist in many arenas and settings, and why feminists continue to argue for equality). Gender is thus understood as something external to the core of the human subject, as something imposed on but not residing within the essential nature of human being. At the same time as ‘externalizing’ gender, this understanding of subjectivity invokes a radical separation between the subject and the environment in which s/he exists: the human subject occupies a position of self-determining, rational agent independent of, and external to, that environment, including both its social and its physical facets.
These two elements of the liberal humanist model of human subjectivity have together invited us to think about gender as belonging at least as much to environments—the spaces and places in which we live our lives—as to people. Put another way it has helped us to think about gender as inscribed on ‘natural’ and built environments, as well as, and as a way of, marking and adorning bodies. Cultural geography has thus sought to reveal the variously gendered constitution of a diverse array of environments, including for example in workplaces (Hanson and Pratt, 1995; Massey, 1995; McDowell, 1995; 1997), homes (Domosh, 1998; Dowling and Pratt, 1993; Gregson and Lowe, 1995; Marston, 2000; Roberts, 1991), residential neighbourhoods (Bondi, 1998a; Hubbard, 1998; 2000), retail spaces (Blomley, 1996; Domosh, 1996; 1998; Gregson and Crewe, 1998), leisure and sports environments (Johnston, 1995; 1996; McEwan et al., 2002; Morin et al., 2001) and cyberspace (Wakeford, 1999). Each of these places has become gendered in accordance with the kind of activities that take place there, and with the ways in which these activities have traditionally been conceptualized and ‘marked’ as either masculine or feminine.
Several of the studies cited argue that gender and sexuality are inextricably intertwined within the various spaces on which they focus, and refuse to be bound by the separation between sex and gender associated with the emergence of feminist perspectives in geography. This conceptualization of gender initially inhibited explicit engagement with questions of sexuality, as well as with embodiment, and has subsequently been extensively critiqued within cultural geography (Bell and Valentine, 1995; Binnie and Valentine, 1999; Bondi, 1998b; Domosh, 1999; Longhurst, 1995; 1997; Nast, 1998). We would argue, however, that the conceptual separation of subject and environment invoked by the sex-gender distinction has survived such critiques and has been highly productive in fostering research about the geographical and cultural inscription of gendered subjectivities understood in a wide variety of ways.
To elucidate this notion of the inscription of gender on environment, we draw on some everyday and supposedly ‘common-sense’ examples. Think, for instance, of the stereotypical building site, boxing ring and aeroplane cockpit, and the starkly contrasting gender associations of secretarial spaces (the traditional ‘typing pool’), the aerobic fitness centre and the aeroplane aisle (Grimshaw, 1999; Hochschild, 1983; Pringle, 1989). To be sure, such correlations are neither rigid nor static, but the gendering of such places is clearly illustrated by the way the gender identities of those who transgress the conventions are viewed. Female boxers and brickies are likely to attract comment as unwomanly or ‘mannish,’ while male flight attendants and secretaries are often characterized as effeminate or effete. Precisely because these various places bear such powerful gender inscriptions, men and women put their masculine or feminine cultural credentials in question through their mere presence in those environments (Cresswell, 1996). The extent to which it is considered unacceptable to inhabit spaces culturally coded in terms of the other(‘s) gender is illustrated clearly by the negative connotations of the gendered adjectives applied to such suspect subjects. Even when, or where, gender conventions weaken, ‘transgressions’ remain noteworthy, illustrated in terms like ‘male nurse’ (distinguished from ‘nurse’) or ‘female pilot’ (distinguished from ‘pilot’): the gender of terms without adjectival specification can, apparently, be assumed.
Feminist theorists have sought to unearth the roots of such placings of gender, in order to ascertain on what grounds the gendered associations are made. Attempts have been made to identify patterns that reveal why one environment, and the associated activities that colour its conceptualization, is coded masculine, and another feminine, and often the patterns (whether ‘found’ or ‘imposed’) are of a dualistic nature. Many and various dualisms have been identified and linked to cultural and geographical imaginings of gender. For example, it has been argued that environments are gendered according to whether they are conceptualized as ‘public’ or ‘private,’ with linkages to binaries of ‘culture’ and ‘nature,’ ‘mind’ and ‘body,’ ‘reason’ and ‘emotion,’ ‘active’ and ‘passive,’ which are all structured hierarchically, the first terms of these pairings not only inscribed as masculine but privileged as well.
The literature of cultural geography provides abundant empirical evidence of the operation of such dichotomies. But the gender patterning of space almost invariably turns out to be complicated, disrupting as well as reproducing gendered binaries. Natural environments, for example, are often feminized and viewed as passive, rendering them available for conquest and control by radically separate masculine subjects (Kolodny, 1975; Rose, 1993; Seager, 1993; Women and Geography Study Group, 1997; Woodward, 1998). Mountaineering is thus traditionally coded as ‘masculine,’ and the places associated with mountaineering—its peopled environments—are similarly masculinized even if the land itself is coded as feminine. The urge to climb and to conquer mountains can thus be understood in terms of a particular, heterosexual version of masculinity (Rose, 1993). However, mountaineering also cuts across associations between masculinity and ‘rationality,’ largely driven, as mountaineers acknowledge, by passions rather than logic, in addition to which the muscular strength and fitness required entails a fixation with the bodily which in other contexts might be seen as ‘unmanly’ (Longhurst, 2000; Morin et al., 2001). What this (stereotypical) example illustrates is that the gendering of spaces and places is rarely straightforward. Dualisms, and the value of their constitutive parts, shift depending on context, and they do not themselves ‘explain’ or provide reliable analytical tools for understanding the projection of a gender binary onto ‘natural’ and built environments. Indeed, what emerges most clearly from the way the relationships between dualisms operate is that they serve to protect gender inequalities by privileging all things male (Bondi, 1992; 1998a).
Another example reinforces the point: the work of cooking, cleaning and caring in general tends to be linked with women, especially when unpaid and carried out in domestic spaces. Where such activity takes place beyond the domestic space of the home, it has the potential to become managed, professionalized and masculinized. The more men become involved in a particular place, the more respected that place becomes; and conversely, the more valued the place becomes, the more likely it is to become a ‘male preserve.’ Think of the chefs kitchen, as opposed to the housewife’s; the consultant surgeon’s common room, as opposed to that of the nurse. Any place where ‘men’s business’ is conducted is likely to be esteemed as a space of action and achievement, command and control (Spain, 1992). In contrast, the more servile and superficial business of ‘women’s space’ is likely to be trivialized, denigrated and domesticated, that is, excluded from the peculiarly defined ‘public’ sphere of influence and importance.
Kevin Hannam and Pamela Shurmer-Smith recognize the pervasiveness and tenacity of such gendered geographical divides, and suggest that (predominantly male) geographers have been complicit in strengthening this tautologous link between women and the private sphere, through the practice of
classifying the domestic realm as the place where women and children are permitted and the public realm as the place where they are wholly or partially excluded. [Thus] in much of Africa we find the domestic realm extending to the cultivated fields where women work, but not necessarily to the front of people’s houses where men talk. (1994: 109; compare Monk and Hanson, 1982)
Bondi and Domosh (1998) further elaborate the argument by showing how distinctions between public and private, characteristic of modern urban societies, can be understood in terms of a coalition of gender and class interests, in the service of which spaces are defined and redefined.
This analysis illustrates how accounts of subjectivity associated with the theme of equality enable us to think of gender as residing in environments external to human subjects. However, we have also shown how attempts to trace the sources of gender inequalities in such environments founder, and return instead to the power relations through which (gendered) geographies are produced. Later in this chapter we will argue for approaches to subjectivity that do not view subjects and environments as separable in this way. However, at this point we note how examination of the gendering of spaces and places illuminates important aspects of the persistence of gender inequalities and in so doing provides resources with which to challenge deep-seated or ‘sedimented’ assumptions about the meaning and placing of gender categories.
While assessments of the impact of feminist politics in particular contexts vary (Mitchell, 1984; Rowbotham, 1989; Scott, 1999), the optimistic view that distinguishing between cultural gender and biological sex would have a straightforward liberatory effect (via the notion of equality) has largely faded (Evans, 1994). In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries few feminists would claim that the cultural is intrinsically easier to change than the biological. Indeed in some ways such a claim had always been deeply ironic given that the sex-gender distinction had come from a psychiatrist who argued that it was easier (and more emancipatory) to intervene surgically than to change the gender identifications of his patients (Shapiro, 1991). Another strand of feminist politics has emphasized the need for separate spaces for women, within which the resistances of gender are acknowledged. We turn to this argument next, elaborating its impact on cultural geography.
Closely related to the theme of equality is that of autonomy. Conceptually, autonomy underpins liberal feminist arguments for equality because the capacity for self-determination or self-rule is seen as intrinsic to human nature, regardless of gender. Moreover, Simone de Beauvoir’s inspiring analysis drew strongly on the argument that women are socially constructed as (men’s) ‘other’ and consequently denied autonomy. Thus, women’s autonomy may be viewed as a prerequisite for gender equality. But as we will show, the politics of autonomy has not been defined solely in terms of equality with men.
Whereas the logic of equality points towards opportunities for, and treatment of, men and women ‘regardless’ of gender, autonomy has required the development of women-focused practices, and the production or ‘performance’ of differently sexed space (Rose, 1999). Since its emergence in the mid 1970s, feminist geography has been associated with efforts to practise geography differently as well as to counteract and correct omissions and biases in geographical knowledges. In the academic discipline of geography such practices are epitomized by the emergence of groups and networks committed to the development of feminist perspectives, such as the Women and Geography Study Group (a group within the Royal Geographical Society and Institute of British Geographers), the Geographic Perspectives on Women Specialty Group (a group within the Association of American Geographers) and Geogfem (an electronic discussion list for feminist geography). None of these exclude men, not least because the principles of equality operated by professional organizations prohibit the use of gender as a criterion for membership. However, they successfully create spaces in which women are generally more ‘vocal’ than men and which are often temporarily occupied only by women (Delph-Januirek, 1999; McDowell, 1990; Nairn, 1997).
Attempts to create new kinds of spaces of and for knowledge production have, however, often proven problematic because of deep-seated tensions between academic conventions and feminist commitments (Bondi, 2002; Domosh, 2000; Hanson, 2000; Nast and Pulido, 2000; Penrose et al., 1992; Seager, 2000). Such tensions sometimes revolve around the cooperative, non-hierarchical ways of working espoused by feminists which sit uneasily within the highly individualistic systems of reward and recognition characteristic of university cultures. Such cultures typically proclaim the high degree of autonomy available to academics, but, as feminists have shown, the form of autonomy espoused is implicitly and specifically gendered masculine (Aisenberg and Harrington, 1988; Grosz, 1990; Hekman, 1992; Lloyd, 1984; Morley and Walsh, 1996). Feminists have therefore argued and agitated for the scope to redefine autonomy.
As well as underpinning the efforts of feminist geographers to influence spaces and practices within the academy, the theme of autonomy has generated a body of work in cultural geography concerned with parallel efforts in other settings. Whereas a concern with equality has generated research about the inscriptions of spaces as both masculine and feminine, a concern with autonomy has prompted a specific focus on women’s spaces, thereby ‘correcting’ a profound substantive and conceptual neglect. A small number of studies focus on women-only living and working spaces (Taylor, 1998; Valentine, 1997). More numerous are analyses of women’s efforts to ‘own,’ embody or reclaim spaces, in the context of the dominance of normative, heterosexual versions of masculinity (Bondi, 1990; Duncan, 1996; Koskela, 1997; Valentine, 1996). These studies often emphasize the importance of countering representations of women as victims at the same time as acknowledging the profound difficulty of challenging hegemonic versions of gender. What emerges is a commitment to simultaneously ‘undo’ and ‘redo’ gender.
Ali Grant (1998), for example, writes about the politically motivated exclusion of men from spaces of feminist activism such as ‘Take Back The Night’ marches (against violence against women), the development of refuges for women fleeing domestic violence, and the work of rape crisis centres. Feminist activists have long argued that the creation and maintenance of women-only ‘safe spaces’ is a crucial component of feminist projects. However, this tradition’s ‘sin of disloyalty to men’ has provoked anger and accusations of ‘man-hating’ and lesbianism, the latter being ‘an old but still effective way of maintaining a strict gender hierarchy’ (1998: 50). Such accusations can be particularly damaging when they originate from or take hold within locally influential organizations who, through funding and other means, effectively regulate, restrict, ‘domesticate’ and devalue the potential achievements of feminist activists, resulting in stark choices between closure and deradicalization. The latter route has frequently entailed the progressive institutionalization of what began as feminist projects and spaces, in the course of which women-only principles have been relinquished in order to retain funding. Grant argues that this is in fact the purpose of the hostility against feminist activism because women-only spaces challenge hegemonic understandings of appropriate gender relations:
Women who contest and transgress gender materially and symbolically expose the manufactured nature of the category ‘women’ … [T]ransgressive females have tended to be marginalised, as spaces of resistance have been institutionalised. Removing these transgressive bodies and ideas … reduces the possibilities in place for the continuation of the development of radical counter-hegemonic identities. (1998: 53)
Grant’s analysis illustrates how, from the perspective of hegemonic versions of gender relations, ‘doing’ gender without men is deemed wholly inappropriate and unacceptable. But the creation of non-institutional spaces, different environments where difference is allowed to emerge—different ideas, attitudes and behaviours—is essential for feminist activists in order to undo the dominant system of gender (compare Shugar, 1995). For this reason, it is important who is and who is not involved in those spaces. The ‘women-only’ spaces that activists opposing violence against women aim to create cannot be understood within our usual ways of ‘thinking gender,’ and therefore challenge established patterns of thought as well as widespread patterns of behaviour.
Quoting from her interviews with feminist anti-violence activists, Grant (1998) demonstrates just how enlightening many had found spending time with other women in spaces of resistance, and how essential this experience was to their developing sense of their different (often lesbian and in Grant’s terms ‘UnWomanly’) subjectivities. She argues persuasively that such critical collective spaces were and are crucial in processes of ‘consciousness raising’ and politi-cization, through which the category ‘woman’ may be redefined beyond its current restrictively gendered and heterosexist basis and bias. This argument is, therefore, not about equal access to spheres of activity and subject positions traditionally dominated by men, but about spaces through which to realize women’s autonomy and difference from men. It is about women occupying and traversing spaces boldly and confidently (Koskela, 1997); it is about women dressing and behaving on their own terms rather then in relation to men (Skelton, 1998); it is about performing and producing spaces differently.
Challenges to the power of regulatory ‘fictions of gender’ (Butler, 1990) have taken various forms, with attempts to construct and imagine sexed and spatial difference being a prominent feature in feminist utopian literature. Such projects present images of how gender relations could be, and thereby stretch imaginations and aspirations beyond the ‘common-place’ of here-and-now towards the ‘no-place’ of utopia, where the subjectivities of women are freed from patriarchal constraints. Often, this entails a radical separatist agenda, where women live on their own and on their own terms. Feminist utopian novels such as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Joanna Russ’ Whileaway and Monique Wittig’s Guérillères proffer more or less single-sex self-defining cultures where men figure minimally or not at all (also see Munt, 1998; Valentine, 1997). By imagining a cohesive and autonomous social identity for women, such writings highlight the gap between our experiential realities and our political ideals, providing a sharp and stimulating contrast between existing and aspirational social and symbolic orders. Lucy Sargisson writes that such texts describe cultures of women which
contain a material or cultural memory of oppression along gender lines … [which] can be connected to the common search for subjectivity and identity as women, and to the renunciation of historico-cultural traditions that have constructed Woman as an artifice to complement (make perfect) Man. (1996: 206-7)
The non-fictional practice of l’écriture feminine, most closely associated with the French feminist philosophy of, for example, Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous, can also be seen as a ‘utopian’ attempt to strengthen and simultaneously recreate autonomous feminine subjectivities. L’écriture feminine attempts to think sexual difference anew, and suggests that ‘imagining how things could be different is part of the process of transforming the present in the direction of a different future’ (Whitford, 1991: 19). Such writing thus seeks to bring about change in the present, rather than mapping out the future in advance. It is therefore a form of dynamic or fluid utopianism that works to reach beyond women’s potential for autonomous relations with men to create a new ethics of sexual difference. As Kevin Hannam and Pamela Shurmer-Smith note,
l’écriture feminine is not to everyone’s taste and it can certainly be very hard work to read, but, since it resides at the edge of experiment in generating new ways of thinking the world and abounds in spatial metaphors, it really cannot be ignored by cultural geographers. (1994: 119; also see Davidson and Smith, 1999)
Indeed, Gillian Rose (1996; 1999) has in recent years engaged with Irigaray in an imaginative and performative attempt to rethink the very nature of space.
The theme of autonomy has provoked a great deal of controversy within and beyond feminist geography. For some, the women-only or women-centred practices and spaces associated with a feminist politics of autonomy presume an essential sameness among all women (and implicitly among all men). According to this interpretation, in contrast to the notion of gender as a superficial adornment associated with the theme of equality, gender is understood to constitute a fundamental and dualistic aspect of human subjectivity. Such essentialism has attracted intense and sometimes vitriolic criticism (Fuss, 1989; Spelman, 1988). However, it is an interpretation which depends upon and reproduces the binary thinking it criticizes: it constructs an opposition between gender as either superficial or fundamental. As our account illustrates, engagements with women’s autonomy carry more potent challenges to conceptualizations of subjectivity. By questioning and exploring the limits of the assumed universality of normative fictions of rational, unitary and self-directing subjects, the possibility of difference comes into view. The theme of autonomy emphasizes gender as a source of difference and in so doing focuses on women, women’s experiences and women’s spaces. But, as Minnie Bruce Pratt (1984) and Caroline Ramazanoglu (1989) amongst others have argued, gender is one amongst a multitude of fluid and power-laden differences that shape subjectivities and spaces, which have been profoundly influential in cultural geography’s engagements with gender.
The processes of categorization we described in the first section of this chapter are not unique to gender. We make equally routine and habitual assumptions about people’s age, about their ethnicity and/or ‘race,’ about their socio-economic position, about the shape, capacities and requirements of their bodies, about their sexuality and so on. In some ways the existence of these taken-for-granted assumptions is essential to our ability to interact with one another, at least in contexts where daily routines bring ‘strangers’ into close proximity with one another. We cannot approach each and every interaction as if we know nothing of what might be similar or different between ourselves and the lives of others. Rather, we need to be able to ‘place’ the people we come across in our daily lives within a framework of meaning, which we do by drawing upon culturally specific repertoires of interpretation. Thus, we use local knowledges that enable us to interpret visual, aural and other signs (pertaining to contexts as much as to people) in terms of distinctions of gender, age and so on. We also need to be able to ‘place’ or ‘situate’ ourselves in relation to others, which we do in part by ‘identifying’ ourselves as belonging within particular categories and outside others, from which we ‘disidentify’ (Skeggs, 1997). These processes of identification and disidentification draw on whatever ideas and resources are available to us to think about ourselves.
The categories we so frequently apply unthinkingly or unproblematically relate to our own and other people’s lives in complex ways. Contrary to much everyday usage, they do not express uncontentious, easily definable or constant attributes of the lives to which they refer. For example, there are many different ways of being ‘women’ or ‘men.’ Indeed as soon as adjectives are added we imagine ‘women’ and ‘men’ in many different ways: consider for example how you imagine ‘young women’ or ‘old men’ or ‘a white woman’ or ‘a homeless man,’ and so on. In other words, gender categories are analytical abstractions. Moreover, many of us resist particular labels or the assumptions attaching to them at least some of the time, but at other times we use them of ourselves without question. For example, whether as students, research workers or lecturers, those of us involved in higher education are likely sometimes and in some places to experience our gender as irrelevant but at other times and in other places as important to what we do, and we are likely sometimes to accept and sometimes to question assumptions others make about us under the heading ‘gender.’ This does not depend upon an explicit awareness of issues of gender: it is evident in unspoken responses of the kind ‘but I’m not like that’ or ‘I’m not sure if that applies to me.’ In such responses, although gender may be an aspect of what is disputed, it may be impossible (and irrelevant) to discern whether what is rejected pertains to gender or to another kind of category, illustrating that the notion of gender as a discrete facet of human experience is a way of thinking that relates problematically to the experiences to which it refers. Indeed, as many feminist scholars have argued persuasively, categories of gender, race, class, age and so on cannot be ‘disentangled’ or ‘separated’ from one another, so we cannot isolate something called ‘gender’ from other aspects of lived experience (Battersby, 1998; Grosz, 1994; Pratt, 1984; Ramazanoglu, 1989; Spelman, 1988; West and Fenstermaker, 1995; Young, 1990).
Differences between women have been an important theme and focus of attention within feminist politics and feminist thought. We would argue that, despite all its limitations, the sex-gender distinction has encouraged an association between gender and difference. To elaborate, whereas ‘sex’ is typically defined in terms of two mutually exclusive categories, male and female, feminists deployed ‘gender’ in order to foster the possibility of multiple versions of femininities and masculinities. In this sense ‘gender’ highlights and opposes stereotypical representations of, and assumptions about, women and men that abound, whether in academic disciplines (in relation to geography, see Monk and Hanson, 1982; Rose, 1993; Tivers, 1978) or in wider cultural and political contexts (Coward, 1984; Williamson, 1980), and which underpin a wide variety of exclusionary practices.
One way of challenging such representations and assumptions has been to demonstrate the existence of multiple femininities (and masculinities), which entails bringing into question general claims about the nature of ‘women’ (and ‘men’). But overgeneralized claims about ‘women’ (and ‘men’) are not the sole preserve of ‘mainstream’ academia, ‘mainstream’ politics or ‘mainstream’ culture: in advancing the case for women’s liberation, feminists have sometimes, often unwittingly, reproduced the same exclusionary practices for which they have criticized others. In particular, white, middle-class, heterosexual women have sometimes written or spoken as if representing women ‘in general’ but in so doing have eclipsed and effectively silenced women unlike themselves. Critiques advanced by black women, by working-class women, by lesbians, by Third World women, by disabled women and so on, have all, in a wide variety of ways, ensured that differences among women have become central to the politics of feminism (Bhavnani, 2001; Carby, 1982; Chouinard, 1999; Chouinard and Grant, 1995; hooks, 1989; Mohanty, 1988; Mohanty et al., 1991; Wittig, 1992).
Such critiques have been associated with struggles around cultural identities and representations, which Nancy Fraser (1995; 1997) describes as a ‘politics of recognition,’ and which she argues are analytically distinct from a ‘politics of redistribution,’ that is, struggles around material inequalities. Fraser’s distinction has generated a good deal of debate, much of which revolves around the value of making such analytical distinctions (Fraser, 2000; Phillips, 1997; Young, 1997). However, neither Fraser nor her critics disagree that in practice political struggles often address issues of poverty and of representations, as several studies in cultural geography have illustrated. Geraldine Pratt and Susan Hanson, for example, examine how geography constructs interconnecting differences of gender, race and class which have significant material consequences:
Gender is constituted differently in different places, in part, because residents in those places differ in class or racial or other social variables; that is, places are sites where particular sets of social relations are experienced and compressed. But geography is implicated in a deeper way. Class itself is a process that is mediated by place and space … The experiences of class and gender are structured by local resources, including locally available forms of paid employment, as well as local cultures. These resources develop synergistically in relation to the social characteristics of existing residents. (1994: 11-12)
Drawing on evidence from neighbourhoods in Worcester, Massachusetts, they tease out several dimensions of the spatiality of daily lives, emphasizing how the ‘imagined geographies’ of employers and workers combine with workplace cultures and social networks to reinforce intersecting differences of gender, class and ethnicity (also see Hanson and Pratt, 1995). Illustrating the intense geographical constraints experienced by many of those living in poor neighbourhoods (who include first-generation immigrants who have travelled large distances before arriving in Worcester), they argue ‘that there is a stickiness to identity that is grounded in the fact that many women’s lives are lived locally’ (Pratt and Hanson, 1994: 25), which often leads to a strong sense of differences between women, and which masks interdependencies and commonalities.
As many studies have shown, mobility, especially commuting times and distances, varies markedly between different social groups (for a review concerned with gender in relation to other factors see Law, 1999). Put another way, the scale at which daily lives are lived varies very significantly; indeed the idea of ‘scale’ is itself a social construct that generates and sustains interlocking differences—gender, class, race and so on (Marston, 2000; Ruddick, 1996; N. Smith, 1993).
Space and spatialities clearly fracture (and are fractured by) gender and other categories and therefore contribute to a proliferation of versions of feminine and masculine subjectivity. In so far as the politics of identity grounds political interests in particular experiences, this proliferation has resulted in a splintering of feminist politics and a recognition of multiple feminisms. Taken to an extreme, this implies a conceptualization of subjectivities as corresponding directly to positions people occupy within the frameworks producing difference, including those of gender, class, race and place. But people are not bound to pre-given subject positions in this way: experiences of gender, class, race, place and so on are themselves social constructs, and influence rather than determine people’s political affiliations and actions. Moreover the notion of correspondence between a particular form of subjectivity and a particular structural position ‘buys into’ the notion of individuals as centred, bounded, autonomous entities.
We would argue that while the imposition of socially constructed and therefore ‘fictional’ conceptual labels (such as race, gender and so on) can be used for politically dubious purposes, and so must be questioned and never treated as ‘natural’ (Irigaray, 1993), they have a long history of usage and cannot be simply abandoned by emancipatory political projects. Moreover, such separations and categorizations can be used strategically, for example to highlight those parts of the webs of our identities (Griffiths, 1995) around which changes most urgently need to be made (in relation, for example, to experience of racism, heterosexism, ageism and so on). But, there are still potential problems linked with feminist usage and understanding of the concept ‘woman’: being a woman can mean different things at different times in different places to different people, and no one definition of womanhood would be appropriate across the broad board of women’s experience. Why then would we wish to argue for and present a ‘definition’ at all?
While it is clear that women in no sense constitute a unitary group, a constructive and usable understanding of the concept of womanhood is still required for the purposes of feminist theory and practice. (After all, for whom are feminists concerned, if not ‘women’ as a group?) Wittgenstein’s anti-essentialist philosophical approach, and particularly his notion of ‘family resemblance,’ is potentially useful here. Following Davidson and Smith’s (1999) feminist interpretation of this notion, we would contend that concepts such as ‘woman’ need not be understood and employed representationally, as referring to certain essential features shared by all members of the group ‘women.’ Rather, much as Wittgenstein argues that we identify members of a family in terms of, for example, resemblances in eye colour, build or patterns of speech, and not through a particular feature or features common to all, concepts such as ‘games’ or, according to Davidson and Smith, ‘women’ can be understood productively in terms of a ‘complicated network of similarities overlapping and crisscrossing’ (1994: 74). That is to say, when we use the term ‘woman’ we need not use it in a way that specifies and depends upon any particular shared experiences or features for its sense. In fact, what we understand and what we communicate by the term will alter according to the context within which it is used, and this shifting, contextualized sense of how a concept operates in practice is extremely, multiply, useful for feminist theorists and cultural geographers.
There are powerful reasons why we should resist the temptation to produce a precise definition that attempts to ‘pin down’ exactly what being a woman entails. Such exact conceptual boundaries are likely to be restrictive, exclusive and counter-productive politically. In so far as we do however require a working definition of ‘woman,’ we would argue in favour of ‘strategic imprecision,’ that we have no need to settle or ‘tie down’ its meaning once and for all. For, as Wittgenstein makes plain, it is not ‘always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture with a sharp one … Isn’t the indistinct one often exactly what we need?’ (1988: no. 71; cited in Davidson and Smith, 1999: 77). Wittgenstein’s reference to a degree of usefulness that might change signals his recognition of and emphasis on the importance of context, and provides valuable insights into the shifting and ‘unnatural’ nature of gendered being: it helps to clarify the ways in which ‘even’ our biology is not set in stone but conceptualized, mediated and fractured by language and culture.
Such anti-essentialist and strategically imprecise definitions of ‘woman’ pervade feminist work within and beyond cultural geography. To take one example, in Ann Phoenix’s (1995) study ‘Mothers Under Twenty’ the respondents’ various circumstances and social positioning(s) presented the researchers with conceptual and practical challenges and dilemmas, and Phoenix’s account illustrates some of the benefits and difficulties of working with any concept or definition of women which inevitably directs attention towards a specific ‘group’ identified, or rather ‘constructed,’ for the purposes of the study. Despite the obvious similarities or we might say, recognizable ‘family resemblances’ between these women in terms of age and ‘maternal status,’ Phoenix (1995) makes plain that individual respondents differed markedly in their most immediate experiences and concerns: even within this group of women who shared apparently significant aspects of their lives ‘in common,’ their categorizations as women and as young mothers turn out to be rather particular aspects that coexisted with a multitude of highly salient differences between them. While the hardships and prejudices they faced in their daily lives may be tied up with their gender and/or youth and/or parental responsibility, such experiences are not immediately attributable in this way, or to any other identifiable or isolatable features of their identities.
Phoenix (1995: 59) writes, for example, about the complex and varied experience of white mothers of mixed-race children in undeniably racist circumstances; of respondents living in obvious poverty, evidenced by ‘the emptiness of food cupboards’ or ‘lack of milk for tea’ or simply the ‘wintry cold’ of their flat. While each of the respondents’ lives is uniquely complex, for certain purposes it is useful to draw attention to experiential and material similarities that can be found among and between a number of women. This is not to essentialize the experience of this group, to delimit their subjectivity through specific terms and ‘conditions’ (such as motherhood). It is rather to draw a temporary, purposeful and strategic conceptual boundary around them, to pick out, highlight and explore ‘family resemblances’ in order to better understand the needs and experiences of this ‘group.’ Drawing attention to particular points of contact does not, however, mean that we are oblivious to other resemblances and distinctions. And, despite clear commonalities beyond gender (relative youth and motherhood), any definition of ‘woman’ capable of including and speaking to the experience of all of even this small group of respondents would have to be ‘imprecise.’ Above all, we could not assume that gender was a matter of utmost priority in these women’s lives, and it should be clear that, for alternative political purposes, we might wish to draw attention to and prioritize aspects of their lives as women over and above their gender.
The extent to which issues of subjectivity can be brought to the fore, or fade to the background, depends on complex and inconsistent contextual factors and we may wish to elide certain differences and emphasize others for a particular reason. Cultural geographers have therefore found they need to approach the categories ‘women’ and ‘men’ flexibly, and that while gender may be a primary concern of the researcher, in order to engage with respondents’ own priorities it may need to be viewed through the more predominant prism of, for example, race or class. The definition of the gendered subject that is employed therefore needs to be imprecise enough to allow diversity at some times but a form of specificity at others, for example, when we engage with issues of particular relevance to young black single mothers, or grandmothers who are disabled and working class. Conceptualized in terms of family resemblance, the categories ‘women’ and ‘men’ allow for such shifts to take place. Moreover, they remain faithful to the ways in which such concepts tend to operate in the contexts of everyday life.
In a variety of ways the theme of difference has proven to be both contentious and productive. It has had a powerful and a profound influence on analyses of gender that deploy geographical and cultural imaginations, through which a complex fracturing of gendered subjectivities has been illuminated. As our discussion has shown, attending to difference has fostered an understanding of subjectivities and spaces as mutually constituted. Moreover the strategic imprecision for which we have argued suggests an inherent ambiguity and a necessary fuzziness about gender and other categories. A wide range of spatial metaphors has been used to explore these ideas, and the theme of difference can be thought of as invoking complex topologies and multidimensional spaces (Pratt, 1992; Price-Chalita, 1994). While this suggests a much more complicated relationship between subjectivities and environments than emerged from the theme of equality, it still implies that, however complexly interwoven, the two are analytically separable. In the next section we outline ways of thinking about gender that further problematize this boundary.
In the second section we argued that the sex-gender distinction enabled feminists to insist that the categories ‘women’ and ‘men’ are produced within a cultural as opposed to a biological realm; in the third section we showed how women’s autonomy has the potential to challenge normative views of subjectivity; and in the fourth section we argued that the concept of gender has served as a flexible container for difference. In this section we discuss ways in which the theme of deconstruction serves to unsettle the dualistic underpinnings of such conceptualizations.
As we have stressed, the understandings of gender associated with a politics of equality stem from the adoption of a distinction between sex and gender. This distinction sets up a series of binary oppositions, in which gender is associated with the cultural and with multiplicity, while sex is associated with biology and with homogeneity. This dualistic framework has become deeply problematical for feminists (Edwards, 1989). Distinguishing between sex and gender opens up the thorny question about the relationship between them and this is transposed onto the relationship between biology (or ‘nature’) and culture (including ‘nurture’). Within the framework of binary oppositions, there are two broad possibilities: either gender can be understood as the cultural elaboration or embellishment of what is given in nature, or gender radically transcends the matter of nature (Connell, 1985). Both these possibilities suffer serious consequences. If gender is produced by the cultural elaboration of an underlying biology then we are drawn back repeatedly to arguments about precisely where sex ends and gender begins, with biology (and therefore sex) understood as existing independently of, and prior to, culture. If gender floats free of the matter of nature, this implies that gender is an attribute of the mind while sex is an attribute of the body. But why, if the mind transcends the body, should the mind be divided by gender? In practice, the notion of a mind operating untrammelled by bodily concerns has been forcefully critiqued by feminists as a fiction, which covertly positions attributes of maleness as human norms, and through which gender inequalities are enforced and reinforced (Battersby, 1998; Butler, 1990; Grosz, 1994; Hekman, 1992; Jay, 1981; Lloyd, 1984; 1989; Moore, 1994; D. Smith, 1993).
Analytically, therefore, gender categories are highly unstable or contingent (Butler, 1991; Felski, 1997; Harding, 1986). Lacking any stable content, the categories ‘women’ and ‘men’ acquire meaning only through their use in particular contexts: they are ‘produced’ through our living of them. In this sense the categories are always ‘fictions’ upon which we draw routinely (see Butler, 1990; Riley, 1988).
This understanding situates gender in everyday lives and everyday contexts: we live our lives as ‘women’ or as ‘men’ through our routine practices played out in the places we inhabit. Put another way, the power of particular fictions of gender resides in our enactment of particular ways of being ‘women’ or ‘men’ in particular places, and dominant understandings of gender may be unsettled or brought into question if our routine practices diverge from these fictions in significant ways. Within this framework gender is inseparable from its contexts. It is, moreover, impossible to imagine ‘men’ and ‘women’ except as embodied—the examples in the first section of encountering individuals whose appearances or voices leave us uncertain about whether they are ‘male’ or ‘female’ assume and make central the bodies of those with whom we interact—and feminist geographers have therefore explored potentially disruptive embodied performances of gender in a variety of settings including corporate workplaces (McDowell, 1995; McDowell and Court, 1994) and gyms (Johnston, 1996) amongst many others.
Robyn Longhurst (2000), for example, demonstrates the extent to which pregnant women are expected to behave in public space in a manner ‘becoming’ to their ‘condition,’ and correspondingly, how disruptive challenges to such expectations can be. Her respondents describe how their behaviour is judged against exacting standards of ‘appropriateness,’ and how their actions are restricted and censured accordingly. ‘Heavily’ pregnant women in particular are seriously discouraged from entering certain environments (such as bars), taking part in certain activities (such as rugby), or ‘displaying themselves,’ that is entering ‘public’ space, in clothing considered ‘revealing.’ Women who breach such normative and normalizing standards of expectant feminine decency can find themselves subject to moral outrage and indignation, and this is illustrated pointedly by Longhurst’s (2000) account of a New Zealand ‘pregnant bikini competition.’ Letters to the editor of a newspaper that reported the event used evocative terms such as ‘spectacle,’ ‘abhorrent’ and ‘shame’ to express their response to photographs of these ‘pregnant women with attitude’ (2000: 463). One respondent was moved to ‘draw frocks’ on them, presumably to reinstate their misplaced modesty. What this episode reveals is that atypical and unexpected acts can test and potentially stretch the limits of ‘public decency,’ and the modes of ‘doing’ gender that it is un/able to contain. The ‘scantily clad’ and pregnant presence of women in a city centre is a contestatory and controversial act capable of subverting accepted ideas of how a particular manifestation of gender—that of a woman during pregnancy—‘ought’ to be performed.
This example shows how both regulatory norms and performances of gender are context specific. It also implies a separability between gendered subjectivities and contexts: the places of public space are construed as ‘external’ to the gendered subjects who perform and negotiate the norms through which spaces, bodies and subjectivities acquire and articulate gendered meanings. But some important studies in cultural geography have argued that people and places are imagined, embodied and experienced in ways that are more radically and inextricably intertwined with each other (Davidson, 2000a; 2000b; Kirby, 1996; Nast and Pile, 1998). That is to say, subjects and environments exist, not as definitively bounded entities in proximity with each other, but as dynamically interconnected and mutually constitutive.
This intertwining of subject and environment is not ‘normally’ brought into conscious awareness, but ‘problematic’ or ‘phobic’ experiences of space, including for example agoraphobia and vertigo, serve to highlight what is usually taken for granted (Bordo et al., 1998; Kirby, 1996). The experiences drawn upon in such studies are themselves highly gendered. Of agoraphobia Esther da Costa Meyer writes ‘[i]ts connection to women is beyond dispute,’ and she argues that it can be understood to ‘allegorize the sexual division of labour [hence the notion of agoraphobia as the ‘housewife’s disease’] and the inscription of social as well as sexual difference in urban space … Agoraphobia represents a virtual parody of twentieth-century constructions of femininity’ (1996: 141, 149).
In this context more detailed analyses of experiences of agoraphobia have explored how (gendered) bodies and spaces are experienced in panic attacks, which precipitate and help to maintain agoraphobic geographies (Bankey, 2001; Bekker, 1996; Davidson, 2001). Panic can be understood to express a radical and horrifying disintegration of boundaries around selves which ordinarily provide subjects with a sense of being safely delimited and demarcated from surrounding spaces. When such boundedness is thrown into question by problematizing phenomena such as panic or vertigo, the fragility and imagined nature of taken-for-granted boundaries become excruciatingly evident (Davidson, 2001). Such sensory realization can be deeply disturbing to selves for whom the regulatory fiction of existing as bounded, autonomous isolates, in proximity with but separable from their environs, is deeply felt.
Experience of such boundary crises typically prompts sufferers to seek out environments likely to engage soothingly, rather than disturbingly, with their sense of themselves. For many who suffer agoraphobic panic, this entails avoidance of populous and otherwise sensorially stimulating places such as restaurants, shopping malls and public transport, where the volume and intensity of interactions with sentient and non-sentient others is often experienced as profoundly corrosive of already fragile boundaries presumed to contain the subject (Davidson, 2001). Ironically, given the popular misconception that agoraphobia involves a fear of open spaces, safe spaces for the agoraphobic subject are often found in quiet countryside or parkland, or at night, when the potential for others to impinge in this way is reduced. More often (and stereotypically), however, sufferers will feel safest in the more predictable spaces of their homes, whose walls can serve to reinforce their fragile and weakened boundaries. In a sense, the very bricks and mortar are imbued with and have power to imbue feelings of safety and security for the subject within.
Agoraphobic panic can be understood to constitute a kind of boundary dispute, a phenomenal discordance that occurs in and through the relations between (gendered) people and places. It is thus well placed to reveal something of the nature of this ‘betweenness,’ given that, in so far as the source and sense of panic are locatable at all, they arise neither internally nor externally in relation to the subject, but rather from the boundary between. As a boundary crisis, panic undermines the distinction between subjects and environments, underscores their inescapable interrelation and reveals the ‘normal’ sense of separateness from our surrounds to be a partly fictitious, imagined distinction. Our sense of this discrimination—between what is self and what is not—is maintained by habit and confidence that the world will behave according to our projections and expectations, that is, by a kind of ‘ontological security.’ Once this has been disrupted, our ‘imaginings’ inevitably alter.
This research on agoraphobic geographies and subjectivities contributes to the deconstruction of conceptual separations between subjects and environments by showing that there is no possibility of subject or experience without situation. Whether we are aware of this or not, each is continually co-constitutive of the other. To be is to be somewhere, and our changing relations and interactions with this placing are integral to understandings of human geographies. Moreover, gender is inscribed deeply within these processes. So, even as dualistic separations between people and places are brought into question, binaries persist, in this instance producing family resemblances in the mutual imbrication of subjectivity and space.
Conclusion: On the Paradoxes of Gender
In this chapter we have explored the cultural and geographical imaginings of gender in relation to four themes which have been influential in feminisms within and beyond cultural geography. We have emphasized throughout that binary gender categories are both deeply problematic and extremely pervasive. On the one hand, to think about gender productively, we need to escape from the confining straitjacket of binary oppositions, whether of sex and gender, or body and mind, or biology and culture, or subject and environment, and so on. But on the other hand, it is important to acknowledge that the concepts we deploy, such as gender, are often, if not always, linked to such binaries. In other words, dualistic thinking necessarily clings to the concept of gender. Consequently we are not arguing that cultural geographers need to move ‘beyond’ binary thinking, or ‘beyond’ the themes of equality, autonomy, difference and deconstruction. We wish instead to problematize the very idea of going ‘beyond,’ and in so doing to encourage further discussion of the political and spatial commitments implicit in the various conceptualizations of gender deployed in cultural geography.
Notions of progress are very influential in academic research and scholarship. Reviews of existing bodies of literature often conclude by identifying gaps or research ‘frontiers,’ or by arguing for new research agendas. Although such arguments are not necessarily presented as normative claims about a field of research, they nevertheless encourage a view of knowledge as developing in a discernible direction. Several characteristics follow from this, including the tendency for specialist subfields to emerge successively, and a view of the scholar or researcher as capable of (re)viewing a subfield as a whole. We would argue that any review, such as this one, is paradoxical: it is necessarily situated, and yet to perform the function of a review it also claims the capacity to delimit and thematize a body of knowledge. Tensions or paradoxes of this kind are pervasive in academic scholarship. We would argue that fostering and working with such paradoxes is a highly productive way of doing cultural geography.
In conclusion we therefore argue for the acknowledgement and strategic ‘acceptance’ of paradoxes on a number of different levels. We wish to encourage cultural geographers to reflect on the interplay, tensions and contradictions between them, to recognize that we need to work with paradoxes, and that their inherently problematic nature can be used to positive advantage, enabling forms of academic practice that simultaneously perform and subvert established ways of thinking and writing about gender. ‘Doing’ and theorizing gender in such ways will necessarily entail ‘doing’ and theorizing space and place as well. For example, as we have shown, conceptualizing subjects and environments as separate has been enormously fruitful for understanding cultural geographies of gender, but so too are understandings of subject and environment as inseparable. Exploring (rather than resolving) the contradiction between separability and inseparability is likely to generate creative ways of thinking about spaces and subjectivities.