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Identity Without Selfhood: Simone de Beauvoir and Bisexuality

Mariam Fraser
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
1999
0521625793 (pb); 052162357X (hb)
14.95 US$23.95 (pb); 40.00 US$ 64.95 (hb)
226 pp

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Mariam Fraser's book is an extremely interesting and original exploration of the ways in which sexual identity is constructed and represented in Western societies. Although the title indicates the focus on Simone de Beauvoir, this study is not in any sense a biography or a historical narrative; rather, Fraser uses the representations of de Beauvoir found in newspapers, academia and biographies in order to interrogate the discursive practices deployed therein to construct the identity of de Beauvoir, and argues that these same techniques serve to erase de Beauvoir's bisexuality. Thus, Fraser's central argument is that 'the discursive possibilities of bisexuality are either limited or enabled by the very same techniques and practices which produce de Beauvoir as an intelligible and coherent self....it is the multitude of techniques by which de Beauvoir is produced as an individual that simultaneously serve to erase bisexuality, again and again, as an identity which pertains to the self' (p1).

Fraser's work therefore concerns current debates on the self. sexuality and subjectivity, and she is critically engaged in particular with Foucault's/Butler's ideas on the processes of subjectification. However, the originality of her perspective derives from her development of Foucault's and queer theory's conceptualisations of the self and subjectification using Deleuze and Guattari's understanding of desire, which suggests the possibility of an immanent sexual desire which is not necessarily bounded by the material body or anchored in an intelligible identity. Fraser argues that this 'body without organs' is a useful way to understand the erasure and displacement of bisexuality, precisely because bisexuality is not constituted as an intelligible or authentic identity of selfhood. Moreover, Western ideas (including Foucault's and Butler's) about the processes of subjectification around sexuality and selfhood are, she argues, still intimately connected to versions of identity which have implicit boundaries, both corporeally and intra-psychically and therefore, cannot explain or even admit bisexuality into the field of selfhood precisely because its fluidity destabilises these ways of thinking, or as Fraser puts it, 'the body without organs of bisexuality...deterritorialises the very theory which seeks to explain narrative identities' (p161).

Fraser is thus presenting a radical framework for thinking about identity and selfhood; claiming that we may be able to see in the 'body without organs' of bisexuality the possibility for 'decoupling identity from selfhood' because the processes of subjectification we can identify and discuss at present, cannot allow for a way of even being able to think about bisexuality, suggesting that these frameworks of thought on the self, sexuality and desire are still primarily based on limited, binary matrixes (self/other, interior/exterior, desire/object). Clearly there is much work to be done in developing this framework, and Fraser recognises this in her discussion, but I think that she has achieved her main aim of demonstrating that the erasure of bisexuality tells us a great deal about the techniques of representing the self and identity in Western thought. There are certainly problems with using such a framework, as Deleuze's version of power and agency of the body can be criticised as being even more decontextualised than Foucault's. However, Fraser is aware of such issues, and in dealing with these and in developing her own perspective, she engages in thoughtful and rigorous scholarship and she sustains an extremely high level of sophisticated argumentation throughout the book. As such, even if you disagree with her final arrival point, her work has important implications for anyone working with ideas of how we theorise and conceptualise identity and selfhood, desire and sexuality.

This is a text which will be relevant to any Honours student doing project work on bisexuality theory but will probably find more of an audience with postgraduate researchers/academics who are specialising in this area, or those who engaged with theoretical debates around identity in queer theory, bisexuality. The book also raises a number of interesting questions about the ways in which we come to understand selfhood and so will be relevant to anyone approaching this topic from a Foucauldian/Deleuzian perspective.

Momim Rahman
University of Strathclyde

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