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Becoming Woman as Agency

Suzana Milevska

The main question regarding the contemporary understanding of the specificity of the issue of gender difference and woman’s position in the society of today, particularly in the Balkan context, would be whether patriarchy is still as strong, ruling our society in the same way as it did in the past.
On the one hand, the ahistorical theories of patriarchy and everlasting female subordination are still the basis for some feminist theories. Depending on different cultural and political contexts patriarchy was so successful in disguising and modifying its methods, arguments, and ways of functioning that, on the other hand, it is often heard that feminism is not necessary anyway.
On the contrary I want to argue that patriarchy today still exists but the only difference is that it is not as obvious as before and that feminist theory and practice are still as necessary as before, but their re-conceptualisation would be crucial. More precisely the question is: what kind of feminism could successfully tackle the newly developed patriarchal regimes of representation and systematic exclusion of women from the societal, political and cultural advantages and privileges?
Feminism, in all its varieties and waves, due to its more recent development has taught us that patriarchy is not homogenous and has many faces so it cannot be recognised and fought directly. The constructionist view, that professes that it is not the sexes but genders that are the relevant problem to be discussed because genders are differentiated based on culturally different rules and constraints, prevails in contemporary theory and helped us understand the cultural basis of patriarchy. In a way such views pushed back the biological distinction between the sexes as essentialist and irrelevant, even though inevitable.
However, the constructionist theories did not explain how the existence of the powerful and omnipresent patriarchy on one hand and phenomena such as women’s activism, independence and women’s awareness of patriarchy on the other side co-exist and co-relate. In other words, the most relevant question here is how it became at all possible to have professionally successful and socially active women, in spite of the inevitable.
One of the answers that could be contemplated here is the concept of agency, both on the singular, micropolitical level, and on the collective, macropolitical one. The central claim in Lois McNay’s Gender and Agency is that the recent theoretical work on identity mainly remains burdened by a negative understanding of subject formation and her aim is to question ‘how social power may be composed of both other norms and relations, which may reinforce or conflict with patriarchy’.1 She states that ‘the predominance of a primarily negative paradigm of identity formation – of subjectification as subjection – comes from poststructuralist emphasis on the subject as discursive effect’, a theme that was common to Foucaultian constructionism and Lacanian psychoanalysis, and in feminism mostly through Judith Butler’s works.2 By quoting Foucault’s claim that ‘the subject is constituted through practices of subjection, or, in a more autonomous way, through practices of liberation, of liberty’ McNay emphasises the fact that Foucault influenced a large number of theorists who elaborated the process of identity construction by privileging the negative moment of subjection.3
Within constructionist circles the subject is understood as being formed through ‘an originary act of constraint’ which for McNay does not offer a broad enough understanding of the dynamics of subjectification.4 In this context, if power is always already established as patriarchal, McNay underlines that it is unclear how any position outside of the “phallocentric matrix” could be acquired.
We need to question the idea that the individual emerges from the constraints of the collective in order to better understand the agency and the dynamics of subjectification. Actually, McNay objects to the main contention of the ‘negative paradigm’ of subjectivity formation because this idea of the discursive or symbolic construction of subjectivity becomes a form of determinism that holds the subject as essentially passive. She actually calls for overcoming of the symbolic determinism of the negative paradigm by ‘a dialogical understanding of the temporal aspects of subject formations’.5
The main implication of this generative logic for a theory of agency, which is taken up in this book, is that it yields an understanding of a creative or imaginative substrate to action. According to McNay it is urgent ‘to conceptualise these creative or productive aspects immanent to agency in order to explain how, when faced with complexity and difference, individuals may respond in unanticipated and innovative ways which may hinder, reinforce or catalyse social change’.6
McNay’s actually calls for a more thorough conception of agency that, according to her, is needed to explain both ‘how women have acted autonomously in context of process of gender reconstructing’.7 She argues that a more creative dimension of agency is based on ‘renewed understandings of ideas of autonomy and reflexivity, understood as the critical awareness that arises from a self-conscious relation with the other’.8
For example, in the context of my research, if one accepts such a negative and hegemonic perception of patriarchy, all of these cases of women warriors, politicians, business-women or other gendered but non-patriarchal phenomena (for example, the latest case of Mirushe Hoxha – the first Albanian woman candidate who ran for President in Macedonia) would have been impossible to understand and interpret.
Judith Butler also emphasised that the symbolic order has to re-gain its social meaning rather than insisting on the pre-social structure of the psyche. However, McNay favours the ambiguities and dissonances that exist in the way that both men and women occupy masculine and feminine positions, and that according to her are reciprocally available to both (something that obviously is not present in Butler’s writing). McNay also criticised Bourdieu’s work for his views that the subordinate position of women means that women remained complicit in these games and thus participate in their own subordination and serve as “flattering mirrors” to the games of men.
Although the exclusion from the field of masculine privilege accords women a certain insight into masculinity – the ‘lucidity of the excluded’ – she objects to Bourdieu’s past despite constructing social sanctions and also how they may act now in the inability to recognise potential dislocation and instabilities on the part of individuals that can destabilise the monolithic account of the reproduction of gender relations.9
In McNay’s view, it should be acknowledged that even though feminists distance themselves from the patriarchal schemes of psychoanalysis, it was Jacques Lacan’s tripartite system, of the symbolic, real, and imaginary that led many feminists to conclude that masculinity is as imaginary as femininity.
Nevertheless, some constructionist theories of reflexive transformation overestimate the relevance and the extent of the expressive possibilities of the images available to both men and women. ‘The questioning of conventional notions of femininity does not arise just from identification with a greater array of alternative images of femininity, but from tensions inherent in the concrete negotiations of increasingly conflictual female roles’.10
McNay insists that any critical understanding of the process of identity formation cannot take place during the direct instantiation of the subject with symbolic structures. McNay’s critique of the influence of the Lacanian triadic system of Boromean knots between the real, imaginary, and symbolic, on feminism is based on Cornelius Castoriadis’ critical interpretation.11 Castoriadis’ “imaginary institution” is more relevant for the construing of psyche than the psychoanalytically overestimated realm of the symbolic.
In contrast to Lacan, Castoriadis captured the constitutive nature of the radical imagination in the formation of the psyche. He offers a kind of alternative to Lacan’s theory of identity formation (around a lack) suggesting that identity is rather formed in ‘the relation between the psyche and the social understood as one of mutual inherence and interdependence’.13

At the beginning of the nineties I was the first one who started using the term “curator” to designate my profession in my own country, Macedonia.
Many things did not change since that period, when I had to overcome numerous obstacles and go through many sexist humiliations on an everyday basis. The sniggering addressed to me in private and in public was mostly due to the use of that unknown word, “curator”, which in my mother tongue, Macedonian (and in a few other Slavic languages), sounds in part ”dirty”. Namely, the first syllable of the word, “kur”, is also the slang for penis.
Although today this sounds like a bad joke, at the time any woman who would have used such a term, sounding so male-ish and “vulgar”, in order to describe her profession, would have become an easy target in patriarchal Macedonian society. Journalists were forcing me to “translate” the word as “organizer”, “custodian”, “art critic”, etc., so as to sound more acceptable, while for the most part, these other terms were incorrect and inappropriate.

The other problem with being a female curator stems from the simple fact that the rules of all professions are based on a hierarchy system where gender relations have already been established and any attempt to overcome the pre-established and strongly embedded patriarchal regime may result in failure.
The situation has not yet changed much; even the division of responsibility is not an easy task. The curator needs to guide and delegate the individuals employed on projects. For the most part, they are men, and then there are the dealings with the directors of institutions who control the finances, and they too, are primarily men. Now, although some of my colleagues particularly in Macedonia (the majority of whom were members of the International Association of Art Critics AICA and at the meetings of the local section of AICA even challenged the usage of the term as ‘unnecessary’) have already started to identify their professions with the same “funny” word, and so, “curatorship” became a legitimate term, but, as yet, not a clearly recognized and paid occupation.
This conflicting social experience resulting from the coincidental partial homonymy of the two unrelated words was usually seen as a kind of hubris on my part. Therefore, it marked my career from its start with a kind of urgency that I felt for positioning myself in relation to feminism, women’s art and other contemporary debates surrounding the issues of gender difference.


The relevant difference that still needs to be discussed in today’s art and art theory: the cultural difference between the feminine art in the Western world and that in the Eastern European societies was also on my agenda, especially while curating the first all-women artists installation and performance exhibition in Macedonia Liquor Amnii (1996). It was a project initiated by women artists from the USA and Macedonia who invited me to curate this pioneering event (Cifte Amam, Skopje, 1996, Providence (USA), – with Sheila Pepe, 1997).
While the American artists were very clear about their feminist references the female artists from Macedonia were very careful and distant from the feminist context. What changed since then is the positioning of the women artists themselves. Since then I curated many art projects by women artists that acknowledged feminism and identified with its main premises. Regardless of their methods and media framework, they have in common the belief in the potentiality of their empowerment of women.

“What it Feels Like for a Girl”

In her photo-narrative project “What it Feels Like for a Girl”, Jelena Jureša tries to tackle the stereotype of female subjectivity as passive and constrained by all societal limitations. What becomes crucial and punctuated for the photo-portraits of the selected women is not their visual difference but their narrated singular life experiences. Their unique eventful lives and their unique position inside and outside of the “phallocentric matrix” make them quite different from each other.
When I was invited to write this text the most difficult task was to decide my own position. For a very long time I have written mostly texts about my own curatorial or research projects. However, the aims and claims of Jelena’s project in many ways overlapped with my research interests in gender identity and difference in the Balkans.
Finally, I wanted to encourage not only the artist but also the twenty women who decided to support the whole idea with my own participation and collaboration. Thus, my position in the project became multilayered and more complex than I expected at the beginning: simultaneously writing from the outside, from the so called neutral theoretical perspective of a writer who tries to introduce some new positive feminist concepts such as “agency” as a framework for better understanding Jelena’s artistic efforts, and writing from the inside, from my own experience but not in a manner of self-portraiture but as a report of my own becoming-woman throughout the process of my professional maturing and development.
“What it Feels Like for a Girl” is a project that takes as its main tone a very specific kind of representation through narration. Even in the cases when the women did not fully succeed in overcoming the long-term obstacles, such a tone fits into the concept of Jacques Derrida’s link of the professional and confessional realm: it fits his belief in the commitment and professing one’s own destiny, constructing one’s own subjectivity with complete belief and devotion. One could hardly believe that any of the women collaborating in this project could have accepted the invitation to participate in it had they not fostered such commitment towards their own histories/herstories.
The question to be addressed here would be: is not such self-fabulation the only possible ground of overcoming the pre-existing patriarchal grid? Any of the social leaps would have otherwise never happened had there been no projecting of one-self as becoming-president, becoming-director, becoming-professor, becoming-curator.
But what about the negative experiences and destinies that were captured by the ‘pre-social structure of the psyche’ or by the real traumas of the socio-political conditions in ex-Yugoslavia, the economic troubles of transition and other momentums of the reality that did not allow any ambiguities and dissonances in the occupying masculine and feminine positions? Jelena Juresa is aware (in her own description of the project) that patriarchy has a very strong impact and appearance in periods of economic, judicial and social crisis, it appears as a kind of common denominator that gathers people around some imaginary old values that allegedly function for all.
In such situations, women are more vulnerable, often confused and drawn back towards patriarchy not because of their reactionism but simply because in difficult existential situations patriarchy is represented by the society as the only possible and welcomed societal solution.
At that very moment what is really difficult, but what must happen, is what Claire Colebrook calls “the grammar of becoming” which would make a difference between ‘who is speaking’ that becomes irrelevant and the speaking as woman itself. Colebrook draws a distinction between the grammar of the Being and the grammar of becoming. At first, she identifies the grammar and logic of subject as tied to a certain way of speaking:

‘The very concept of the subject is tied to a strategy of being and essence, rather than becoming. And this is because the subject is not just a political category or representation but a movement of grammar’. 12

Finally, one should not forget that in this project such grammatical movements are executed on two levels, on the level of the visual grammar of the photographic portraits and on the narrative level through the personal statements.

‘The very notion of subject in the grammatical sense, as a being capable of predication, is also tied to a broader notion of grammar whereby political subjects or identities are effected through certain ways of speaking.15

This text attempted to re-conceptualise agency that in feminist theory is thought to be an explanation of how gender identity is ‘a durable but not immutable phenomenon’.14 In the professions and confessions of the girls and women in the art project of Jelena Juresa that helps us understand that agency in a more concrete and vivid way, one may find many exemplifications and explanations of what is otherwise difficult to describe in a more general way. The personal self-fabulations support the agency theory in details and nuances that no theory can grasp and acknowledge and therefore it is important how theory, art and life come together and indirectly narrate the event when we become ‘worthy of what happens to us, and thus to will and release the event, to become the offspring of one’s own events’.16

1 Louis McNay. Gender and Agency Reconfiguring the Subject in Feminist and Social Theory (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2000) 126.
2 McNay 2.
3 Michel Foucault, ‘An Aesthetics of Existence,’ Politics, Philosophy, Culture, Interviews and Other Writings, ed. by L. Kritzman (London: Routledge 1988) 50, qtd. in Lois McNay 2.
4 McNay 138.
5 McNay 4.
6 McNay 4-5.
7 McNay 5.
8 McNay 5.
9 McNay 54.
10 McNay 69.
11 Cornelius Castoriadis. The Imaginary Institution of Society (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1987).
12 Claire Colebrook. ‘A Grammar of Becoming Strategy, Subjectivism, and Style’. Becomings – Explorations in Time, Memory and Future, ed. Elizabeth Grosz (Ithaca: Cornel University Press, 1999) 117-118.
13 McNay 118.
14 McNay 2.
15 Colebrook 118.
16 Gilles Deleuze. The Logic of Senses. Trans. Mark Lester (London: Continuum, 2004) 170.