Greg Moses
Copyright 2000
Originally Submitted to
RPA Review

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"Negotiable, Sociable Selves":
A Review of Alison Weir's Sacrificial Logics:
Feminist Theory and the Critique of Identity.

(New York: Routledge, 1996) 216 pages. ISBN 0-415-90863-9.

Even among feminists, ontological theories of self often commit the fallacy of sacrifice, argues Allison Weir. Such "sacrificial logics" presuppose that one self may only emerge in opposition to some other self; the birth of one implying the sacrifice of another. While Weir does not dispute the fact that actual self developments in history often assume the costly logic of sacrifice, she wants to point out that selves may also emerge in networks of mutual sociality where sacrifice of one self to another is not ontologically necessary. Feminist theory, she argues, should be more vigilant against the fallacy of sacrifice.

Rather than detecting and rejecting the fallacy of sacrifice, feminist theory has succumbed to tactics of acquiescence, including efforts to eschew the very idea of self-identity. In the foundational attacks on identity, Weir finds tacit embrace of sacrificial logic. If one buys into the fallacy that self identity can be won only through sacrifice, then the demolition of self-identity has salvational force. From Weir's point of view, however, the abandonment of self-identity as such counts as total fulfillment of the fallacy of sacrifice; it is the ultimate sacrificial logic.

If Weir is correct, then feminist theory often perpetuates an alchemy of violence, the root cause of which she traces to widespread misreadings of Hegel. We usually forget that the conflicting assertions of the master/slave moment are superceded through mutual recognitions of spirit, such that the oppositions of self-assertion in Hegel need not logically culminate in sacrifice, but might rather suggest, "the concept of mutual recognition as intersubjective mediation":

Thus against [Jessica] Benjamin's normative ideal of a paradoxical tension between self-assertion and recognition, and against Derrida's normative ideal of a dissolution of identity in the name of nonidentity, I want to argue for a normative ideal of mutual recognition which can accommodate the reality of human aggression and human difference. . . . This requires a concept of individual self-identity not as a negation of the other but as a capacity for mutual recognition; and not as a negation or repression of nonidentity of difference, but as a capacity for the realization and expression of nonidentity and difference through the realization and expression of the social self. (p. 42).

Chodorow, too, draws criticism from Weir for, "reproducing the opposition between separation and connection" (p. 60). As with the oppositional logic between master and slave, Weir would argue that oppositional terms such as separation and connection may also yield relationships that are not necessarily contradictory. Tension between separation and connection there may be, and real problems in the world, especially for women who struggle for selfhood against suffocating socializations; nevertheless, Weir insists upon a logic where mediation between such terms is ever possible.

Sometimes, argues Weir, the fallacy of sacrifice is perpetuated in univocal readings of equivocal terms. Take the example of internalization, a term for the process whereby social norms become individual values. Weir complains that feminist critiques of internalization too often assume it to be a process of unequivocal submission. Under such readings, internalization must be essentially sacrificial, yet Weir argues that internalization may also work in sustainable ways. While giving credit to theoretical warnings about "internalization of authority," Weir wants to clear sympathetic ground for internalization of those "norms and principles of a society" that might serve non-repressive socialization. "For internalization is the basis not only of conformity to rules and norms, but of an understanding of what it means to appeal to a principle. Thus internalization is the basis of critique: of the capacity to question the legitimacy and validity of particular norms" (p. 71). If internalization often means conformity, it also means conscience.

In Weir's logic of negotiable and equivocal terms, the relation between universal and particular is also logically amenable to cohabitation. The universal need not necessarily repress the particular. Their coexistence need not be paradoxical. If identity, for instance, dwells in the form of the self-same universal, then formal identity need not repress existential particularity. Thus, to say that, "femininity has been produced exclusively in relation to the logic of the Same," is to utter a logical platitude about universality that cannot make the differences between real women disappear (p. 109).

By essentializing universal concepts, we leave ourselves in the peculiar position where, "we have to fight for a woman's right to choose on one hand, and deny the validity of the concepts of rights, choice, and women, on the other." For Weir, such logic is, "less and less sustainable" (p. 132). "Rather than beginning from the transcendental claim that identity represses difference, we need to begin with the question of how we can do politics" (p. 130). For Weir this means internalizing a sustainable logic of mediation where, for instance, "autonomy" might negotiate with "solidarity" for a life of flourishing struggle. Individuals need not lose themselves in a movement. Movements need not be threatened by individuality as such. "A model of feminist solidarity as something which can include difference and conflict is suggested by bell hooks" (p. 133). From this vantage point, the scarecrow known as the politics of identity is made largely of logical straw.

All conceptual models are bound to language, argues Weir. And language, "is the only medium we have of shared understanding" (p. 137). If identity makes language possible, then identity will be necessary for any shared activity, including social and political change. For Weir, logical coherence does not require that the semantic identity necessary to language be instantiated as existential repression of difference in actual groups or selves. We can have identity, logical coherence, and political change that is not necessarily sacrificial.

All this does not mean that struggles for self identity will be pain free. Following Kristeva, Weir wants to differentiate between, "an experience of separation which is painful, difficult, and psychically violent , and the violence of domination" (p. 150). Under this model, logical coherence would not promise to protect self-liberation from its costs. Nor would coherence demand that liberation be ever identical with pain. "The pleasure of differentiation, the pleasure of signification, the pleasure of identification and interaction with others, the pleasure of learning to participate in a social world, are all thematized by Kristeva as essential to the formation of self-identity" (p. 151). Without totalizing Kristeva's optimism, Weir suggests that we may grapple with the problems and promises of identity in a logical milieu of conflicting joys and sufferings.

In the refreshed ambiguity of struggle that results from Weir's logic, we may notice how much it works like de Beauvoir's ethical theory. Since Weir's book does so much work in the feminist tradition, we may regret attention to The Ethics of Ambiguity, which Weir neglects in favor of the better known classic, Second Sex. Yet the work of de Beauvoir's ethics is much more to the point of where Weir is trying to reach, and the evidence of the ethics proves that de Beauvoir herself did not succumb to the fallacy of sacrifice.

Weir fears that de Beauvoir's emphasis on the Hegelian confrontation with "the other" may block the logic of breakthrough recognition, where mutuality is called forth. Although the Second Sex is fully pregnant with the difficulties that impede recognition between men and women in this life under these circumstances, the Ethics of Ambiguity proves that the difficulty is not aggravated by any ontological incoherence in de Beauvoir's logic. For de Beauvoir, the practice of freedom is most vitally the practice of recognition, a truth neglected even by her favorite form of bad faith, the passionate man.

For de Beauvoir's ethics, the danger in Hegel resides not in a frozen antagonism of sacrifice, but in a form of recognition that collapses self and other into a spirit that is not sufficiently differentiated--what she calls rational optimism. In order not to fulfill such a chilling premonition of fascism, de Beauvoir encourages recognition of self and other in a thickness of particular contingencies. In the end, we should neither, "juggle away the bitter truth of sacrifice," nor should we, "eliminate all reasons for wanting it." Fn/1 For de Beauvoir, sacrifice must co-habitate with sociability in order to prevent submersion of what it means to be individual and to make real sacrifices as part of social life.

Weir also recognizes that she cannot abrogate the fact of sacrifice in her construction of the sociable self. She concedes that, "the development of a self in any society probably does require some sort of repression, and [that] any identity can be seen as an exclusion" (p. 8). Her complaint lies with the extent to which repression, domination, and exclusion have become ontologically identified with self as such, thus overshadowing "capacities for individual autonomy" and "collective solidarity" (p. 8).

Weir's book thus serves as a worthy tribute to de Beauvoir's feminism and its studied ambiguity, which refuses for once to choose between the universal and particular, reason and passion, being and nothingness, existence and freedom, and which conscientiously refuses to resolve the antinomies of liberation in advance of its living subjects.


1. Simone de Beauvoir. The Ethics of Ambiguity (Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1997), p. 106.

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