Environmental Ethics and the Master Subject:
A Reply to Janis Birkeland


Val Plumwood

- Published in The Trumpeter, vol. 13, no. 4 (1996): 193-96 -

Feminists can invoke numerous criteria to decide whether a scholarly work is feminist speech or whether it marinalizes or neutralizes gender. Does it value women's voices and enable their expression in diversity? Does it give due and generous attention to feminist speakers, including theorists and marginalized subjects? Does it enable a critical rejection of masculinist theory and practice, and of other forms of oppression? Does it fit the abstract perspective of the theorist to the activist perspective of the feminist political agent working for change? On these criteria Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London: Routledge, 1993) seems to have a claim to count as feminist as well as ecofeminist speech: the standpoint of women's oppression supplies most of the book's theory, experiential basis and examples, and feminist philosophy forms its primary theoretical bias. I aim to bring ecofeminism closer to contemporary feminism, freeing it from assumptions incompatible with feminisms of class and color in order to clear the way for a more integrated oppression perspective.

Janis Birkeland ("Neutralizing Gender," Environmental Ethics 17 (1995): 443-44) consults none of these normal criteria to support her contention that Feminism and the Mastery of Nature marginalizes gender. Birkeland's claim that it "neuters ecofeminism" is based instead on an argument involving several major misconceptions about the concept of mastery and the place of gender in the web of oppression. The first of these misconceptions identifies mastery with the master/slave relationship, disregarding and distorting crucial sections of my text. The second misconception is that a properly gender-conscious ecofemnism implies ranking gender over all other forms of oppression as more basic and structurally crucial. The third, unstated assumption which is presupposed through Birkeland's argument is an overfamiliar scope confusion which leads her to the false dichotomy that declining to prioritize gender implies marginalizing gender. Once these connected confusions are unravelled, the real substance behind the accusation of "neutering ecofeminism" emerges as my reject of the doctrine that gender is the most fundamental form which always has priority over other forms of oppression. I argue that this doctrine involves an unnecessary and damaging assumption of ecofeminism as isolated from contemporary developments in feminist and postcolonial theory.

The leading premise for Birkeland's argument that ecofeminism is neutered is that the term "mastery" refers in my work to master-slave dualism, which she claims is treated as the most fundamental relationship of dominance (in place of the gender duality that Birkeland thinks ought to occupy this privileged place). But Birkeland's claim that I "substitute the master-slave dualism for dominance relationships, as overarching concepts" involves careless reading and gross misinterpretation. In Feminism and the Mastery of Nature I do discuss the master/slave relationship, along with other dualities, in connection with Plato's work, but ascribe to it neither historical nor methodological priority. The concept of mastery itself is definitely tied, not to the master/slave relationship, but to the concept of " The master subject" in wide use among feminist and postcolonial theorists. Given the thesis that my book defends, that the master subject's main project is the rational colonization of the lower order of nature represented as a void inviting occupation, the concept of the master subject is equivalent to the overarching (determinable) concept of the colonizer identify (as used, for example, by Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva [Melbourne: Spinifex,1993]), in the case where multiple specific sites of colonization. I explore the logic of this concept in chapter two ("The Logic of Colonisation"), defining this subject role in a quite precise sense as characterized by dualistic relations which produce a logical structure common to several different forms of colonization or oppression.

Thus, the concept of master subject defines a determinable subject place which can take a range of determinate forms; the concept of mastery stands to androcentrism, eurocentrism/racism, anthrocentrism, etc., much as the concept of color stands to red, blue, gree, etc. The master-slave relation is one, but only one, of the possible determinates of mastery, and occupies no privileged place. The concept of the master subject brings together several well-established contemporary senses of mastery further to the master-slave sense Birkeland has seized upon. The first is that the "master or head of the household" (OED),(1) the occupant of the modern Lockean edifice of property, who appropriates the labor of denied and subordinated groups - women, servants, the colonized, the laboring and excluded classes, and of nature itself. The second sense denotes the figure who hold the cultural master key (OED), the (false) universal subject who claims to speak for all and who can remain unmarked because he is normalized in the master discourse (contrasting with subjugated knowledges and marginalized discourses) at the heart of hegemonic culture. The master subject of modernity is not the patriarch but his son and heir, he whose liberating fraternal enterprise it is to take for his brothers and himself the displaced father's domain of power over women and the lower order called "nature."(2)

Birkeland's assertion that I identify the overarching dualism with the master/slave relation runs totally counter to my text. I take reason, in its dominant Western conception in rationalism, to be the chief characteristic associated with the master subject of Wester culture and with his project of colonization. But it is a major and clearly stated thesis of my work that the overarching dualism of Western culture opposes the sphere of reason (mind, spirit) to that of nature as a sphere of multiple exclusions of reason encompassing, as Birkeland herself notes, "women . . . slaves, indigenous peoples, nonwhite aces, and animals" (and, of course, much more, including nonhuman biological life, necessity, the body). Hence, the relevant dualistic contrast to mastery is not slavery, as Birkeland asserts, but nature as a determinable lower sphere of exclusion and colonization. The master subject is unmarked One to marked Other; not only master to the other's slave, but also man/masculine to the Other's women/feminine, civilized to the Other's primitive, rational to the Other's irrational (emotion), objective to the Other's subjective, mind to the Other's body, and so on. To prioritize the master-slave relationship characteristic of antiquity as the fundamental model for domination would be absurdly limiting and anachronistic in the context of modernity. And since slavery is a premodern form of the class relationship, this reading is inconsistent with my explicit and prominent rejection of Marxist class reduction.

These misconceptions about mastery are supplemented by the false choice that Birkeland presents between prioritizing gender and neglecting it, expressed in her assertion, "Where sex and gender are not pivotal elements . . . we may overlook their role. . . ." This false choice also appears in Birkeland's assumption that since I replace patriarchy by mastery, I must have replaced the dominance of gender dualism by the dominance of the master/slave dualism. But to reject a hierarchy of oppressions is not to marginalize gender any more than it is to marginalize class or race; a gender-conscious analysis is not the same as a gender-prioritizing analysis(3). By the same logic, much contemporary feminist theory itself would have to count as "degendered" or as marginalizing gender, a reductio ad absurdum of Birkeland's argument. Birkeland misses entirely the point that it is not a question of replacing one kind of hierarchy privileging women's oppression, by another which privileges slavery (or class or race), but rather of abandoning the ranking compulsion along with the whole idea that we can establish any general methodological priority among oppressions.

Although some older forms of ecofeminism have embraced it, ecofeminism does not require the doctrine of methodological priority for gender in order to demonstrate powerful links between feminism and ecology and between androcentrism and anthrocentrism. The doctrine that gender is a unity and more fundamental form of oppression is a hindrance both to developing the cooperative forms of struggle that we need and to developing critical insight into feminism itself. Methodological priority for gender assumes that women's oppression must always be ranked as more fundamental, strategically prior to other forms of oppression in all contexts. To reject this universalizing approach, however, is not to assume that forms of oppression can never be ranked, or to suggest that we can never make distinctions of relevance or explanatory priority. Gender is preeminent in structuring certain contexts, particularly the private sphere of intimate and personal relations, as bell hooks notes.(4) Rather, to deny methodological priority to gender is to avoid making any general theoretical ranking of oppressions, whose priority can then be treated as contextually variable rather than open to some sort of universal and abstract determination.

Of course, it is in once sense "our job" as feminists to stress the importance of gender and gender analysis and make sure that they are not overlooked, but that does not imply constructing a hierarchy of oppressions with gender at the top, or elevating the importance of gender by depreciating and trivializing the Other's form of oppression in a misguided competition for "most basic" place. This assumes a separation that we cannot make, for on closer examination the depreciated form of oppression often turns out to be that of marginalized aspects of ourselves or of our own group, and not quite so other as we thought. When contempt for nature or animality turns out to entail contempt for what is represented as nature or animality in our group, and for whatever is marginalized under this guise, it is our problem, not the Other's. So attention to women's oppression requires attention to many other forms; there is no such thing as a pure "women's oppression." Birkeland's own work (5) shows what happens when such a prioritzing approach for gender in relation to other oppressions is assumed: constant, vague, and highly generalized claims are advanced presupposing the historical and explanatory priority of gender ("far deeper," "much harder to change," "the oldest war," "more central," "at the core," "more crucial," "the key," "underlying," "pivotal," "the glue," etc.). Birkeland's prioritization of gender is clearly accompanied by a depreciation of the importance of the Other's oppression. Thus, anthropocentrism is said to be only a "cerebral concept,"(6) and to be easy to change, unlike androcentrism.(7) It is puzzling that practices which daily destroy the nonhuman and human life of the Earth are dubbed a "cerebral concept," but the intent here is clearly to suggest lower explanatory and strategic priority.

Feminist arguments that some forms of the critique of anthrocentrism (deep ecology) involve masculinist approaches and assumptions have mainly been based on bringing out neglected connections with gender, rather than on prioritizing gender.(8) Birkeland's priority argument,(9) that androcentrism is more basic than anthrocentrism and much harder to dislodge, and that deep ecology is masculinist where it does not concede this priority, is highly problematic. The argument that anthrocentrism is less central and easy to change compared to androcentrism neglects their close connection and parallel structure. Anthrocentrism is embedded just as strongly as androcentrism in the Western conceptual and perceptual framework and its most basic practices, and is the last area to be subject to sustained critique. insight into the colonizer role always requires the development of other-attentive and self-critical capacities, but in the case of anthrocentrism this is required to an even greater degree than usual because nonhumans do not usually articulate or confront us with their oppression directly, and we have to arrive at knowledge of our species colonizer identity more indirectly. There is a problem not only about the point of claiming that androcentrism is more conceptually and historically basic than anthrocentrism, but about what this claim means and how it could be established.(10) One method might be to argue that justifications of nongender forms of oppression always refer back to women or the feminine as the source of inferiority, and that such references are not symmetrical, so that gender oppression is the common basic justificatory reference point. But such asymmetry does not seem to hold, and in any case Birkeland herself destroys this possible source of support by asserting that it the association of various oppressed groups, including women, with nature (not with women or the feminine) which justifies their exploitation.(11)

Birkeland offers no support for the gender priority doctrine, other than the conviction that all "social pathologies" are ultimately traceable to a monolithic "Patriarch," and that a program of remaking "the male psyche" and replacing male values will undo all power and oppression.(12) These assumptions give rise to a cluster of further misconceptions about my work and analysis of power. Birkeland takes it as an objection to my account that power does not begin in ancient Greece, where my analysis starts, and that power is never defined. However, I certainly do not attempt to provide in my historical work any universal account of the origins of power or domination; nor do I think that this is possible in a nontrivial way: what I am to provide, as I clearly state, is an account of the marriage of reason and domination, and of reason nature/dualism in the historical context of the West and in the rationalist tradition of philosophy. My leading project is to show how a particular kind of power, the dualistic conceptual structures which naturalize certain oppressions, can be remade in ways which denaturalize them. Thus, I cannot agree that my account treats power as "just somehow pervading human relationships," and by implication as inevitable, although in contrast to Birkeland's own view of power as a simple function of male domination, I would certainly want to understand power as more complex, multiple, and diffused through a variety of practices and conceptual networks.

Closely associated with the drive to prioritize gender is the drive to present all oppressions as reducible to a single all-encompassing form, which Birkeland labels "Patriarchy." The work of black feminists and women of color has been at the center of a major debate on gender and race in the past two decades of feminist theory, which has highlighted the severe problems in these assumptions. As Elizabeth Spelman has cogently argued, the doctrine that gender is more fundamental articulates a privileged perspective, since those who ar able to focus exclusively on gender must be those whose experiences allow them to see other forms of oppression as second or inconsequential, that is, women privilege by race and class.(13) Such a position is unable to represent the experience of marginalized women whose lives are strongly marked by class, race, ethnic, or other forms of oppression.(14) It renders invisible the crucial areas of intersection which, rather than the abstract concept of gender appealed to in Birkeland's account, operate together with the common logic of the master subject to hold the interlocking structure of oppressions together.

Perhaps the worst feature of the doctrine of gender priority is the obstacle hat the association conception of Patriarchy as the regime of unitary male oppressors versus unitary female oppressed presents to the recognition of fractured identifies and to a self-critical feminist practice which confronts women's participation in oppressive structures.(15) it is unable to come to grips with the colonizer within, "that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within us," in Audre Lord's phrase. along with many contemporary feminists, I reject the reductionist concept of Patriarchy that Birkeland advocates, not because it is too radical and confronting, as Birkeland implies, but because it is not radical enough and does no confront its own silencing of marginalized women who do not always suffer primarily from or personally prioritize gender opposition.(16) In contrast, the theory of master subject provides a way to drop rank reductionism privileging a unitary oppression model and substitute a concept of multiple, intersecting, and interlocking oppressions and fractured identities.

Birkeland's strategy of stretching the concept of patriarchy (or Patriarchy) to include forms of dualism, power relations, and oppression, while retaining the usual connotation of patriarchy as gender oppression, smuggles in via definition the assumption that gender oppression encompasses, explains, or reduces all other forms.(17) Many feminists now opt for a more inclusive strategy and terminology, in search of a nonreductive integration which does not mask the multiplicity of oppressions. Birkeland's comments are remarkably insensitive to important differences here, for among those whose adopt an alternative inclusive approach, which contrasts sharply with Birkeland's reductionist stance are the very theorists whose work she commends, Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva in Ecofeminism. Thus, Mies does not allow the concept of Patriarchy to engulf all other forms of oppression in Birkelan's fashion, but is careful to speak of capitalist patriarchy, and to call for a theoretical integration of these critiques.(18) But the recognition of multiplicity that Mies' concept provides, although necessarily better than Birkeland's, is much too limited" capitalist patriarchy is patently too thin to give an account of the idea of "White Man," the master subject that they associate with colonization, so that this key concept of anthrocentrism or naturism needed for a fully fledged ecological feminism, which makes only fleeting appearances in the book.

If we are exceptionally brave and don't mind the looks on our listeners faces, we can, of course, try to speak of white supremacist, naturist, capitalist patriarchy But a simple enumeration of oppressions has more problems than just awkwardness: enumeration suggests an additive account (20) rather than an interlocking one in terms of mutual modification, and generates continuing problems about completeness no matter how long we make the list because it selects not an open but a closed set and provides no way to extend it. It is good methodology to give preference to accounts which are open to including further forms of oppression not yet recognized or articulated. A concept such as mastery which defines a determinable subject place in terms of structural characteristics can be useful here, making it possible to recognize both commonality and difference, both the openness and multiplicity of determinate oppressions, and to validate and integrate multiple critiques without hierarchy of reduction.

Val Plumwood
Department of General Philosophy
University of Sydney
Sydney, Australia


1 OED: Oxford English Dictionary. Birkeland neglects a whole range of relevant connotations of master, including the idea of mastery as the production of a transparent and controllable world. See, for example, Valarie Walkerdine, The Mastery of Reason (London: Routledge, 1988).

2 This master subject is already himself a fractured identity combining oppressed and oppressor aspects, since his discourse of freedom and gesture of emancipation from the power of the father is deeply ambiguous in its emancipatory content. This fracture spills over into the ambiguity of the fraternal democracy, fraternal socialism, etc., in which the master subject is strongly entrenched. See Carole Pateman, The Disorder of Women (Cambridge: Polity, 1989).

3 I would hardly disagree with Birkeland that "theories are made more inclusive or pluralistic by excluding that which is seen as belonging to the feminine sphere - the bodily, nonrational, biological, mundane, chaotic, emotional, and subjective," since it is a primary philosophical project of my book to show how these areas hyperseparated from the rational sphere can be reclaimed and included in theory and culture without damaging reversal. The logic behind Birkeland's implication that I neglect these areas, which take up a lot of space in Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, is hard to follow, but seems to rely on treating them as exclusively associated with women and the feminine sphere, and as somehow erased if gender is not given methodological priority. Birkeland returns once more to her false dichotomy between neglecting and prioritizing gender, this time applied to its associated spheres. However, these areas and qualities defined as what is left behind by reason are not associated exclusively with women or with the sphere counted as feminine, but are also associated with excluded and inferiorzed groups more generally. The body, for example, is associated not only with women and the feminine, but also with the animal, with the colonized (considered as "uncivilized," "primitive," and "culturally undeveloped"), and with those who labor under another's direction, such as the slave, servant and manual laborer. I call such connections "linking postulates" (p. 45); they are an important part of the "glue" which holds the determinable sphere of nature together as a sphere of exclusion.

4 bell hooks, "Feminism: A Transformational Politic," in Talking Back (Boston: South End Press, 1989), p. 21.

5 Janis Birkeland, "Ecofeminism," in Greta Gaard, ed., Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, and Nature (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993).

6 Ibid., p. 43.

7 For a feminist discussion of the concept of anthrocentrism, see Val Plumwood, "Androcentrism and Anthrocentrism: Parallels and Politics," in Ethics and the Environment 2 (1996).

8 See, for example, Val Plumwood, "Nature, Self, and Gender," Hypatia 6 (19??): 4-32.

9 Birkeland, "Ecofeminism," p. 43.

10 On the unclarity of the claim, see Elizabeth Spelman, The Inessential Woman (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), p. 117.

11 Birkeland, "Neutralizing Gender," p. 443. In Birkeland, "Ecofeminism," p. 24, however, she states that it is the association with the feminine that justifies exploitation. Of course, in my framework both can be true, but not in Birkeland's.

12 Birkeland, "Ecofeminism."

13 Spellman, The Inessential Woman, p. 117.

Ibid., p. ix; bell hooks, Ain't I a Woman (Boston: South End Press, 1981).

15 See Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought (London: Routledge, 1990).

16 Spellman, The Inessential Woman, p. 117.

17 Birkeland, "Ecofeminism.," p. 17.

18 Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, Ecofeminism (Melbourne: Spinifex, 1993), p. 160.

19 For capitalist patriarchy to suffice, we would have to make the very problematic assumption that antiracist and postcolonial theory could be absorbed into either the critique of capitalism or that of patriarchy.

20 See Spellman, The Inessential Woman, pp. 122-25.

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