Bianchi’s the Feminine Symptom – A Response

Written by: Christopher Long

Primary Source: Christopher P. Long Blog, October 21, 2016

This is the text of the response I made to Emanuela Bianchi, The Feminine Symptom: Aleatory Matter in the Aristotelian Cosmos, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014) at the 2016 meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existentialist Philosophy in Salt Lake City on October 21, 2016. It is the continuation of a 25 year old conversation Emma I have had on how to read Aristotle.

In the very middle of her masterful and beautifully written book, The Feminine Symptom: Aleatory Matter in the Aristotelian Cosmos, Emma Bianchi gestures to the risk and power of her hermeneutic approach to Aristotle.

On the one hand, she recognizes Page duBois’s critique of feminist psycholanalytic readings of ancient texts as a “colonizing gesture that reduces a rich and multivalent field of representations of women and sexual difference in the ancient world to a crude schematism of presence and absence of the phallus.” 1 On the other hand, she deftly reminds us that this every reduction and crude schematism shows itself in the Aristotelian texts themselves. Here, she embraces Luce Irigaray’s approach, which “offers the possibility of an immanent critique, in that when deployed critically and to feminist ends, psychoanalysis not only foregrounds questions of sex and gender in philosophy, but also permits a disclosure of the precise topologies of the reductions at play and the symptoms produced by those reductions.”2

For Bianchi, an immanent feminist psychoanalytic engagement with Aristotle is well worth the risk of a bit of crudity, for its power lies in its ability to disclose the pathological reductions at work in the Aristotelian texts. Indeed, one might say, having learned something of the lesson Bianchi’s book has to teach, these very reductions, the ways the recalcitrant feminine is repressed, are not only at work in these texts but are precisely what make these texts work. They enact a repression of the disruptive energy of the feminine which, precisely because of this act of repression, comes to language in the texts at certain symptomatic moments. We will return to this symptomology in a moment, for the degree to which it resonates with what I have called legomenology turns out to be at the heart of an ongoing and long-standing, generous, and, for me, enriching dialogue with Emma about the nature of Aristotelian thinking and writing.

But before delving more deeply into the meaning of the symptom in Bianchi’s book, it is important to recognize that her methodological approach moves also beyond the immanent critique for which Irigaray advocates. Bianchi’s is a queer feminism, so her feminist critique is, as she puts it here in the middle of her book, “entwined with a queer critique of ontological sexual difference, engaging the Aristotelian text in a practice that is simultaneously faithful and irreverent, rigorous and deforming, legitimate and bastard—in a word, symptomatic—and also, I hope, illuminating, enabling, and generative.”3

One of the most important and powerful aspects of Bianchi’s book comes to language here, for she speaks of her reading as a practice. Interpretations do things, and Bianchi’s reading of Aristotle is designed not only to do things with him and with his legacy, but also with each of us who enter into genuine hermeneutical dialogue with the text.

This dialogue involves, for Bianchi, what Spivak calls “critical intimacy,” a way of engaging the text that is both generous and skeptical. She rightly understands reading itself as a practice, indeed, she calls it a “responsive practice, one which not only reads but responds.” 4 Such a responsive practice, of course, is not undertaken in a contextual or historical vacuum, and Bianchi’s book is thus oriented, as it must be, both toward Aristotle and toward the current situation in which the reading takes place.

Reading Aristotle from the perspective of the present, Bianchi charts a delicate course between Aristotle as master systematizer, the first of a long line of Aristotelians, and what she calls “reparative phenomenological readings in the Heideggerian vein.” 5 If I am not mistaken, Bianchi has my own reading of Aristotle in mind with this later formulation. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Bianchi is generous in her critique: on the one hand, she recognizes that my phenomenological approach seeks, like her own aleatory feminism, to attend to countercurrents in Aristotle’s texts. She appreciates too, my designation of Aristotle’s methodology as a “legomenology,” the attempt to do justice to the manner in which beings express themselves and come to expression. Yet, on the other hand, she is, as she has long been, graciously insistent about the limits of a reparative approach. She writes: “Such approaches are certainly exemplary in their attunement to Aristotle’s words, but however richly they complexify his legacy, they do not entirely vitiate the overarching teleological and hierarchical architecture with which I am grappling.”6

It is, of course, not only Bianchi who is grappling with the legacy of the hierarchical architecture of Aristotle’s thinking, but all of us insofar as the effective history of Aristotle’s teleology and the patriarchy it consolidated, legitimized, and passed down continues to structure our social, political, and indeed personal relationships with one another. The gracefulness of Bianchi’s approach is experienced in the manner in which she is able to grapple seriously and critically with Aristotle’s teleology without reducing the living and dynamic nature of his thinking to caricature.

Throughout the book she resists the temptation to explain away Aristotle’s systematic aspirations, and when she encounters contradictions, she identifies them, rightly, as symptoms of an aleatory materialism that refuses to go quietly into the hierarchical structure of Aristotle’s patriarchal architecture. There are two moments in the book that illustrate this poignantly, and they are worth considering in more detail both because they demonstrate the power of Bianchi’s intimate critique and because they enable us to practice an intimate, immanent critique of our own.

The first moment on which to focus is her reading of Aristotle’s God, a figure who, more than any in the Aristotelian corpus, embodies the potency of Aristotle’s teleology—or to be perhaps more accurate: a figure who fails to embody any potency at all, if we are to adhere rigidly to Aristotle’s insistence, in Metaphysics XII.6, that if what is primary has potency, “there would not be everlasting motion, since what has being in potency admits of not being.”7

The second moment on which to focus is Bianchi’s careful reading of Aristotle’s shifting account of generation in the Generation of Animals, which she calls, channeling Heidegger’s characterization of Aristotle’s Physics, “the hidden and therefore never adequately studied foundational book of Western patriarchal metaphysics.”8 This formulation is telling for two reasons. First, it justifies the way The Feminine Symptom is structured, framed as it is by opening and closing chapters that engage Generation of Animals in substantive ways. Second, however, it also suggests the degree to which Bianchi’s own reading presumes a kind of grand narrative of the history of philosophy that the deconstructive theory she also embraces has done so much to call into question. One might say that this poetic formulation about Generation of Animals as the hidden book of Western patriarchal metaphysics is itself a symptom of Bianchi’s tendency to frame her reading of Aristotle in terms of the broad sweep of Western philosophy. She comes by this honestly, of course, as we both were attracted to the New School in part at least because of philosophers like Agnes Heller and Reiner Schürmann, who told such wonderful and compelling stories about the history of Western philosophy. Even so, however, we also learned there to be critical of grand narratives, so where it symptomatically appears in Emma’s book, I’ll gesture to it so we can perhaps take it up together in our ongoing discussion of the broad historical implications of this excellent study.

In order to address these two moments in Bianchi’s text with the critical intimacy they deserve, it will be important first to outline briefly the two central concepts around with the book is organized: aleatory matter and the feminine symptom.

Aleatory Matter and the Feminine Symptom

The aporia that most tellingly haunts the Aristotelian system is the appearance of the female offspring herself. On the one hand, Aristotle’s canonical account of generation requires the male form embodied in the semen to master and shape the female matter in order to produce one such as himself. The female appears as the result of a failure of mastery, or as Bianchi puts it “a material mishap.”9 On the other hand, of course, without the female, no generation at all is possible. The feminine is at once necessary and accidental.

Bianchi captures the signature of this aporia with the phrase “aleatory matter.” She puts it this way: “Aleatory matter—that is, matter that is apparently self-moving, disruptive, exterior to any teleological unfolding, indeed that acts against nature—poses continual difficulties for the Aristotelian cosmos.”10 The aleatory, for Bianchi, names that chance happening which Aristotle’s teleological system can neither subdue nor do without. As a result, it appears throughout the Aristotelian corpus as a sign of a certain inability, that is, as a symptom of the system’s incapacity to account for what it seeks to capture.

Symptom, here, takes on an important technical meaning. Bianchi draws together the two dimensions of the Greek word “sumptōma,” which combines the prefix sum-, which means “together,” and pipto-, “to fall,” in order to amplify the manner in which chance and coincidence befall the Aristotelian system. For Bianchi, “the sumptōma signifies a fundamental disruption of hierarchy and teleology.”11 A reading attuned to the feminine symptom in Aristotle will hear in certain decisive passages an equivocation, inconsistency, or vacillation, that is symptomatic of the resistance of aleatory matter to the hegemonic operation of the Aristotelian teleology. The beauty of Bianchi’s reading is the way it refuses to shrink from such symptomatic moments, finding in them instead precisely the signs of another dimension of Aristotle’s thinking that comes to language despite itself. Her intention is neither to indict nor repair, but rather, as she writes at the end, “to tarry with the aleatory.”12 In this, however, we also encounter the practical dimension of Bianchi’s reading, for in attending carefully to her texts, in following along with her as she enters into an intimate and critical engagement with Aristotle, we too learn to cultivate something of what she calls “interruptivity,” “a capacity both to be interrupted and to interrupt existing orders.”13 The cultivation of capacities of interruption enables us to welcome alterity in ways that can lead to more enriching modes of being together with others in a shared world.

Let’s Talk About God

There is no other figure in the Aristotelian imaginary less welcoming to alterity than the Prime Mover. I say “Prime Mover” here specifically, because God in Aristotle is said in many ways, and one way God comes to language is as first mover responsible for the motion of the cosmos. Another way, however, God comes to language is as “the thinking of thinking thinking.” What precisely comes to language in this later formulation is worth pursuing in more detail once we have established the robust and in many ways compelling critique Bianchi levels against the Prime Mover.

Following Irigaray, Bianchi traces a line of thinking in Aristotle from the account of place in the Physics to the figure of God in Metaphysics. She begins, in fact, further back, with an account of Plato’s conception of space or chōra as receptacle, with its rich resonances with the feminine, arguing that in Aristotle, the feminine receptacle is recast as place or topos. This is important because it opens the crucial question of the container, the contained, and the boundary between them. In the Physics, Aristotle develops a conception of topos as boundary, indeed, as the “primary motionless boundary of that which contains.”14 After citing this definition, Bianchi calls our attention to this important passage: “a place is together with [hama] the thing [contained], for the limit [of that which contains] coincides with [hama] that which is limited.”15 Here issues of inside, outside, and boundary are somehow navigated by means of the appearance of the little word, hama, which itself takes on significance in Bianchi’s reading as an expression of the feminine symptom.

The annunciation of “hama” here, according to Bianchi, draws together the temporal and the spatial in a telling way, for it means both “at the same time” and “together with.” This duplicity of meaning gives expression to the paradox of the boundary itself and points to the manner in which the rectilinear motions of the sublunary realm where each element tends toward its proper place give way to the higher circular motions of the stars that marks the passing of time. But, according to Bianchi, the hama here is symptomatic insofar as it brings to language the perplexing structure of the boundary itself in which the contained and the container somehow coincide. Even my own formulation here resorts through the use of “somehow” to an Aristotelian tendency to appeal to an indefinite pronoun to signal the ambiguity of the problem.

For Bianchi, however, Aristotle himself never tarries long with the ambiguous moments his own language betrays. Rather, in the end, he opts to appeal to an ultimate principle of hegemonic authority, the Prime Mover itself, unmoved, but capable of moving others by virtue of its divine authority. On this reading, the Prime Mover is the engine of Aristotle’s teleology. Bianchi puts it this way: “the masculine signifier par excellence is unmoved, motionless, standing beyond the physical cosmos, outside space and time.”16

Here the symptomatic ambiguity heard in the word “hama” gives way to the dominance of patriarchal automony.

In the heavens, the feminine no longer has any place at all, not even as a giver of place. The woman/mother is superseded and the relation between subject and paternal function, now understood as that between heavenly body and divine prime mover, is mediated at her expense, at the price of her disappearance.17

Yet there remains this “hama,” the symptom of aleatory matter and the trace of that which cannot be disappeared by the positing of an ultimate.

It should come, then, as no surprise that when Aristotle turns his attention to the living activity of God perhaps here now properly described as “Father,” that little word appears again as Aristotle attempts to give voice to the complete activity that has its end in itself. To express this, as he does in Metaphysics IX.6, Aristotle differentiates between incomplete activities, like building, which have their ends outside of themselves in the product toward which they aim, and complete activities, like seeing, thinking, living. Aristotle expresses complete activities this way: “one is seeing and at the same time (hama) one has seen (heōrake), and one is practically wise (phronei) and one has been practically wise (pephronēke), is thinking and has thought (nenoēken)….”18 Striking here, is first how Aristotle deploys a combination of verb tenses, the present, with its progressive aspect, and the perfect, with its completed aspect, to bring to language an ongoing activity that is complete in itself.19 In this context, Bianchi rightly emphasizes again the appearance of the adverb, hama, which, as she says, “explicitly seeks a unity, collapsing the present and perfect tenses, while also marking and giving the possibility of a temporal difference, the possibility of a time other than the present.”20 Just as in the case of the earlier discussion of place where the adverb announced a chiasmatic coincidence and separation of time and space at the boundary of the sub- and super-lunary spheres, here too, hama appears symptomatically to gesture to another time. Bianchi is right too to identify this other time with the living activity of God, which Aristotle also describes in terms of receiving, touching, holding, thinking, seeing, being loved, and, living. In this sense, the adverb again announces the recalcitrant feminine symptom, for as Bianchi herself emphasizes, with these formations, the divine activity “also in its articulation bears traces of that very materiality, embodiment, and temporality from which it is purportedly free as a superlatively perfect form of life.”21

Aristotle thus posits the autonomous activity of God, pure and complete, as the ultimate hegemonic principle of patriarchal metaphysics at the same time as (hama) he gives voice also to the feminine symptom that refuses to go into the teleological system without remainder. The feminine symptom comes to language again, it seems to me, in the very manner in which Aristotle articulates the activity of God as the thinking of thinking thinking (noēsis noēseōs noēsis), a formulation which, I have argued, “declares the manner in which a certain dynamis remains cooperative in that activity of thinking which expresses the relational dynamic of encounter on which all life depends.”22 Attending to those moments in Aristotle’s text when the feminine symptom comes to language is what I have called “legomenology,” a method that follows Aristotle’s lead in attending to the things said by those who seek to give voice to the truth of things.

Bianchi has long been a trusted interlocutor who attempts in what she says and writes to give voice to the truth of things, and her book is an eloquent testimony to her endeavor to hold Aristotle accountable for the things he says. In a sense, she attempts to do with Aristotle what Aristotle did with Empedocles when, at the beginning of the Metaphysics, he sought to “pursue and get hold of Empedocles’ thinking, rather than what he said inarticulately.”23 To this end, she insists that the thinking behind the articulation of God as life without body, matter, and time is the establishment of a teleological of order in which the feminine is systematically repressed. There can be little doubt that this has been the misogynistic legacy of Western thinking and acting that a certain Aristotelianism has wrought.

Her critique of my legomenological approach, despite its similarity with her symptomology, is my alleged unwillingness to hold Aristotle’s feet to the misogynistic teleological fire. She writes:

Long’s immanentist reading moves quickly over the radicality of this transcending of matter in the figure of the prime mover, instead emphasizing its rootedness in the relationality of perception and thus its continuity with the human experience of thinking as apprehension and encounter with alterity.24

If, however, I move too quickly over the way Aristotle radically attempts to transcend matter and divorce God from the world, which indeed I very well might, Bianchi could be said to move too quickly to posit the hegemonic dominance of the prime mover as the ultimate teleological principle of patriarchal metaphysics. Ironically, of course, as she suggests, my desire to tarry with ambiguity and affirm relationality at the root of Aristotle’s thinking is animated by a philosophical commitment similar to her own. It is a commitment to do justice to difference, indeed, to learn the habits of welcoming alterity that Bianchi so eloquently associates with aleatory matter. What she calls the feminine symptom, I trace through Aristotle’s legomenology, decidedly not however I hope, as an apology for the misogynistic tendencies in Aristotle. If my reading colludes in covering over the misogynistic tendencies in Aristotle’s thinking and the broader impact such tendencies have long had on the history of Western thinking and acting, Emma is right to criticize me and to highlight these dimensions of Aristotle’s legacy.

However, I would suggest that my legomenological approach is consistent with and capable of lending further support to her own feminist symptomology. To flesh that out further, it will be helpful, finally, to turn our attention to the Generation of Animals, that hidden foundational book of Western patriarchal metaphysics. Here, however, although our approaches resonate with one another, we ourselves fall on different sides of the question of the degree to which the technological model ultimately holds sway as the central metaphor through which Aristotle understands generation.

Generation and Techne

Bianchi begins and ends her book with a substantive engagement with Aristotle’s Generation of Animals. A thread that runs through her interpretation of generation in Aristotle is that Aristotle tends to assimilate the processes of “nature to the scene of technical production….”25 In this, she follows our teacher, Reiner Schürmann, who insisted that Aristotle ultimately treated politics and nature in terms of human fabrication.26

In the final chapter of her book, Bianchi turns her attention to what might be considered the central crisis of Aristotle’s canonical account of generation in the Generation of Animals. The crisis concerns the appearance of certain hereditary phenomena associated with the mother and with the maternal ancestry of the offspring. The canonical account bases generation on production, a model in which the male semen provides the form that shapes the material provided by the mother. As the producing agent, the masculine principle overcomes the feminine matter to produce offspring like itself. This is the source of the odious tendency in Aristotle to identify the generation of a female as a “teras,” a monstrosity, because it is a departure from the masculine norm.27 Indeed, at the beginning of her book, Bianchi points to the female offspring herself as the feminine symptom par excellence.28

Aristotle’s canonical account of generation, predicated as it is on the model of technical production, demonstrates its limitation in the wake of attempts to account for the generation of the female and of the appearance of maternal hereditary features. In GA IV.3, Aristotle deploys a sophisticated battery of concepts to attempt to account for such hereditary phenomena, including, first and foremost, the very appearance of a daughter. Chief among these concepts is the distinction between two sorts of interaction between the powers of the male and female: existasthai, which names the failure of the mastery of the male that results in the appearance of the female; and luesthai, a loosening of the agent resulting from its being acted upon by that upon which it acts. Aristotle deploys the difference between these two ways the male principle can fail to produce one such as himself to account, through existasthai, for the appearance of the female, and through luesthai, for the appearance of male children with maternal characteristics.

Bianchi does a very nice job of summarizing it this way:

Loosening (luesthai) is a rather passive failure of the generative principle, and results merely in a walking over (meta-bainei) to the next same-sex ancestor in line. Existasthai marks a misdirection or deviation in matter that results in radical transformation into a contrary: a meta-ballei or throwing over into sexual alterity.29

The solution is as creative as it is problematic. While is saves the phenomenon of generation and heredity, it problematizes the canonical model of generation in which form imposes itself upon matter in a manner analogous with technical production. Bianchi suggests as much when she writes: “Aristotle’s quite brilliant solution to the problem of inherited characteristics nevertheless results in a profound incoherence in relation to his theory of sexual reproduction, because it requires a balance of powers (dunameis) between the sexes that cannot be effectively translated into the matter-form distinction.”30

This incoherence has far reaching implications for how we understand Aristotle’s thinking as a whole, for it falls together symptomatically, arguably, at the very heart of his biology, which Bianchi rightly situates at the root of his thinking.31 It has implications too, for the degree to which we ought to follow Bianchi (and Schürmann) in identifying technical production as the central model according to which Aristotle thinks natural being. Although it is true that technological thinking haunts Aristotle’s corpus throughout, particularly when it intends to articulate the separate dimensions of form in its relation to matter, the complex messiness of generation undermines the sort of clean distinctions between form and matter Aristotle’s canonical hylomorphism seems to require. Bianchi recognizes and indeed emphasizes it as one of the primary sites in which the feminine symptom appears. Indeed, I would argue, the feminine symptom comes to language in a wide variety of places in the texts handed down to us under Aristotle’s name, including here in the discussion of the generation of animals in the form of the distinction between existasthai and luesthai. Yet, Bianchi herself here might be said to move too quickly away from the incoherence that comes to language here, an incoherence that would require us to consider the degree to which Aristotle’s thinking truly is obsessed with the technological model of production and the rigid teleology in which it finds a home.

The point here is not to initiate a reparative reading of Aristotle, but to complicate the grand narrative that situates his thinking at the beginning of the history patriarchal metaphysics. In complicating things in this way, however, I hope am beginning to learn the habits of interruptivity that a reading of this remarkable book cultivates. If so, it is yet another symptom of how Emma’s work continues to enrich my own engagement with Aristotle and the broader lens through which I encounter the world and those I meet in it.

  1. Emanuela Bianchi, The Feminine Symptom: Aleatory Matter in the Aristotelian Cosmos, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), 115.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 4.
  5. Ibid., 12.
  6. Ibid., 13
  7. Aristotle, Aristotelis Metaphysica (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), XII 1071b18-9.
  8. Bianchi, The Feminine Symptom, 2. See too, Martin Heidegger, “Vom Wesen Und Begriff Der Physis. Aristoteles, Physik B, 1,” in Wegmarken, Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1976), 242.
  9. Bianchi, The Feminine Symptom., 3.
  10. Ibid., 3-4.
  11. WHERE?
  12. Ibid., 241.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 128. See too, Physics, IV.4 212a20-1
  15. Physics IV.4 212a30, 128.
  16. Ibid., 123.
  17. Ibid., 125.
  18. Aristotle, Aristotelis Metaphysica, 1048b23-4.
  19. For more on how Aristotle uses language in this passage and its connection to the notion of essence in Aristotle, see Christopher P. Long, The Ethics of Ontology: Rethinking an Aristotelian Legacy, SUNY Series in Ancient Greek Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004), 102–3.
  20. Bianchi, The Feminine Symptom, 154
  21. Ibid.
  22. Christopher P. Long, Aristotle on the Nature of Truth (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 236.
  23. Aristotle, Aristotelis Metaphysica, I.4 985a5-6.
  24. Bianchi, The Feminine Symptom, 155.
  25. Ibid., 65.
  26. Reiner Schürmann, Heidegger, On Being and Acting: From Principles to Anarchy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987), 86–7.
  27. Aristotle, De Le Génération Des Animaux (Paris: Association Guillaume Budé, 1961), GA 1.2716a6-7.
  28. Bianchi, The Feminine Symptom
  29. Ibid., 209.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid., 2.
The following two tabs change content below.
Christopher P. Long is dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University. His extensive publications in Ancient Greek and Contemporary Continental Philosophy include three books: The Ethics of Ontology: Rethinking an Aristotelian Legacy (SUNY 2004), Aristotle On the Nature of Truth (Cambridge 2010), and an enhanced digital book entitled, Socratic and Platonic Political Philosophy: Practicing a Politics of Reading (Cambridge 2014). The digital platform of the enhanced digital book enables readers to engage directly with the author in an online community. He is also co-founder of the Public Philosophy Journal, a project that has received over $780,000 of funding from the Mellon Foundation to create an innovative online space of digital scholarship and communication. To learn more about his administrative approach and his recent research in Philosophy, digital scholarly communication, and the educational use of social media technologies, visit his blog: www.cplong.org. He is the host of the Digital Dialogue podcast (thedigitaldialogue.com) and can be reached on Twitter @cplong and @deancplong.

Latest posts by Christopher Long (see all)