Summary and Reflections on Gillian Rose’s

Feminism and Geography:

The Limits of Geographical Knowledge


Claudia V. Camp


                I volunteered at our last meeting to provide some background on Gillian Rose’s book and to consider how it might impact my own work on Ben Sira.  It was useful to me to write up chapter-by-chapter summaries, so I’m reproducing those here for you all.  At the end I make the connections I see to my paper.



Chapter 1 Feminism and Geography: An Introduction

Rose argues that women and feminism have been excluded from the discipline of geography because of the particular, masculinist ways in which geographical knowledge is constituted and its relationship to power.  Masculinist epistemology is built on a structure of Same and Other; it claims itself as universal and seeks exhaustive knowledge from its stance of detached objectivity.  This dominant subject position is not, however, monolithic in geography.  Rose argues that there are two different masculinities at work here.  Social-science masculinity “represses all reference to its Other in order to claim universal knowledge (10-11) while the aesthetic masculinity of humanistic geography “admits the existence of its Other in order to establish a profundity of which it alone has the power to speak” (11). 

                She explores feminist strategies of resistance, acknowledging that feminism itself struggles with the need to build an identity for Woman while at the same time admitting the diversity among women, with attention to race, sexuality, and class.  This paradox runs through her analysis, leading her to suggest that “strategic mobility is actually feminism’s greatest strength” (13).  Yet the poles of the oscillation also need to be dismantled in the search for an emancipatory feminist geography.


Chapter 2 Women and Everyday Spaces

 Rose’s social-scientific masculinity is evident in time-geography.  As is typical of her argument, she summarizes its main arguments, points out its possible values for feminism, but then also its limitations, embedded in its universalizing flaw.

                Time-geography was one variation on structurationism, geography’s contribution to the social theoretical question of agency and structure: to what extent do human agents have meaningful causal power and to what extent are they determined by social structures.  Time-geography images “paths” taken by humans as they fulfill their daily tasks, which must be interpreted in terms of the constraints to mobility that individuals encounter as they intersect with “particular institutional projects occurring at specific temporal and social locations” (22).  This understanding of the interpenetration of society, history, and everyday life has been useful to feminists insofar as it focuses on the “mundane world of routine” that is often seen to characterize women’s lives.  Studies demonstrated, for example, the constraints of time and space experienced by suburban women relatively isolated from jobs and other resources. 

Time geography is not able, however, argues Rose, to account for “the specifically feminine kind of subjectivity and sociality” that is produced by the “routine work of mothering and domesticity” (26-27) in the private sphere that these studies highlight.  The differences this routine produces are omitted:  “the emotional, the passionate, the disruptive, the feelings of relations with others” (28).  Her more critical feminist analysis regards this omission as a repression of the Other which must be recovered in order to mark the Same, that is, to mark time-geography’s universal claims as in fact masculinist:  disembodied, passionless, individualistic, public.  In this theory, both the specificity of space and of the body disappear: it is abstract (ungendered, uncolored, unsexual) bodies that move through transparent, boundless space.  This “denies the possibility of different spaces being known by other subjects” (40).


Chapter 3   No Place For Women?

                Humanistic geography is constituted by “aesthetic masculinity.”  HG speaks of “place” in more holistic terms than time-geography’s space. It feminizes space, but does so in its own terms. Place is the idealized Woman, which humanistic geographers still seek authoritatively and exhaustively to know, while at the same time asserting its mysterious unknowability.  “Home” is the exemplar of place, yet real women’s actual experiences in the home—often boring, often oppressive—are ignored.  Rose brings white, socialist-feminist critique to bear on this idealization of home.


Chapter 4  The Geographical Imagination: Knowledge and Critique

Rose cites Evelyn Fox Keller’s critique of scientific claims to knowledge as grounded in a masculinist social-psychological differentiation of subject and object, which is connected to one of the most important dualisms of Western culture, between (feminine) Nature and (masculine) Culture.  Yet Rose argues that geography’s masculinism is more complex in that it also involves—especially in the experience of fieldwork--a contradictory desire for Nature and fear of seduction by it. In critique, Rose discusses one sort of radical feminist critique which simply inverts the masculinist valuation of Culture over Nature, but which leaves the (essentialist, universalistic) dualism in place.  She proposes instead a mobile feminism that rather displaces the dualism of Same and Other, one that oscillates, for example, between some sense of a coherent Woman and the diversity of women.  What is needed is a formulation of a different kind of knowledge, that draws on “different theorizations of different experiences,” central to which will be “a spatiality that articulates a new relation to power and knowledge” (85). 


Chapter 5  Looking At Landscape: the Uneasy Pleasures of Power

This chapter continues the discussion of the feminization of Nature, looking here at “looking” itself.  Whereas traditional cultural geography had regarded the landscape as simply the scene within the range of the observer’s vision, recent critique interprets landscape as a visual ideology, “a gaze which itself helps to make sense of a particular relationship between society and land” (87).  This gaze is both gendered and contradictory: its attempts at objectivity disembody itself yet it is also marked by desire and fear.  Landscape as a way of seeing is bound to class relations; e.g., 18th and 19th century merchants commissioned paintings of their holdings, sometimes with them in it. Yet the mistress appears also a part of the holding of the master.  Peasant women were depicted in the landscape so as to stress their “natural” reproductivity.  Nude women were represented as a kind of landscape.  Thus, “the sensual topography of land and skin is mapped by a gaze which is eroticized as masculine and heterosexual” (97). 

Cultural geography fails to address its own pleasure in the landscape, representing it as a text to be (authoritatively) read. Rose takes up the experience of visual pleasure in a Lacanian analysis, suggesting that masculine pleasure in the landscape “comes partly from its seductively sexual vision of narcissistic reunion with the phallic mother” (105).  Yet the gaze also produces fear of this seduction which produces the voyeuristic gaze that creates a gap between the seer and the seen.  “The intersections of voyeurism and narcissism, then, structure geography’s gaze at the landscape” (108), in an “erotics of knowledge” (109). 

Feminist critique might come from such sources as a study on various kinds of women whose creative work has shown their search for harmony with the environment in the US Southwest; from the diaries of white middle-class pioneer women; from women’s gardens; from re-consideration of the gaze that re-presents the land when the gazer is a woman, often stressing relationships over mastery.  But there is no singular “feminine” way of seeing landscape.


Chapter 6  Spatial Divisions and Other Spaces: Production, Reproduction and Beyond

 “This chapter focuses on the work of feminist geographers who are addressing social and economic themes, in order to explore the possibility of a different kind of space beyond the exclusions of social-scientific masculinist space,” pointing the feminist geography’s epistemological challenges to masculinist closure (113).  Feminist and marxist geographers both argue “that unequal social relations are both expressed and constituted through spatial differentiation” (113), in contrast to time-geography’s singular space.  But marxism subordinates gender to economic considerations, and feminists are suspicious of its abstractions. 

Feminist geographers argue for the interrelationship of production and reproduction—and thus private domesticity and public labor—a perspective which would include women’s sphere into all accounts of economic and social life.  Yet Rose critiques feminist geography as remaining caught in an oscillation that reproduces hegemonic geography’s exclusions, wherein analysis of reproduction assumes a similarity in all women (Woman) while analysis of production incorporates differences among women.  Black feminists in particular have criticized white feminists’ assumption of the oppressiveness of the domestic sphere.  Further, “since . . . the concept of reproduction assumes women’s role as reproducers, its use also affirms that role.” Thus, “in feminist geography the analytical concept of reproduction has been interpreted through the lens of bourgeois cultural values” (126).  In contrast, feminist studies of production have been acutely concerned with specificities of difference, though only regarding class and gender.  Rose also critiques these studies for understanding the female work of the home, especially reproduction, so much in public terms (that is, as work), that what is associated with the private becomes marginalized.  Especially sexuality and emotion, which do not appear in feminist geography. 

Thus, the public/private distinction has its analytical limits and feminist geography needs to imagine new kind of space, as in, e.g., a study of women’s informal economy or their work in local politics.  These create a “surplus” to the geographical language of production and reproduction that recognizes an implicit belief in women as different from men without invoking an essential Woman, through emphasizing the diversity among women.  This gap “produces a sense of space itself as excessive, and knowledge of it as above all political” (136).


Chapter 7   A Politics of Paradoxical Space

                “The chapter concentrates on the spatial imagination of what Teresa de Lauretis has called the ‘the subject of feminism.’  This subject of feminism is a particular sense of identity which tries to avoid the exclusions of the master subject, and I suggest that it therefore imagines spaces which are not structured through masculine claims to exhaustiveness” (137-38). 

                Why feminists are interested in space:  “Feminism, I think, through it awareness of the politics of the everyday, has always had a very keen awareness of the intersection of space and power—and knowledge.  As de Lauretis says, there is ‘the epistemological priority which feminism has located in the personal, the subjective, the body, the symptomatic, the quotidian, as the very site of material inscription of the ideological’” (142).

                “The subject of feminism, then, depends on a paradoxical geography in order to acknowledge both the power of hegemonic discourse and to insist on the possibility of resistance.  This geography describes that subjectivity as that of both prisoner and exile; it allows the subject of feminism to occupy both the centre and the margin, the inside and the outside.  It is a geography structured by the dynamic tension between such poles, and it is also a multidimensional geography structured by the simultaneous contradictory diversity of social relations.  It is a geography which is as multiple and contradictory and different as the subjectivity imagining it.  I have already suggested how some of the founding antimonies of Western geographical thought are negated by this feminist subjectivity:  its embodiment which overcomes the distinction between mind and body; its refusal to distinguish between real and metaphorical space; its refusal to separate experience and emotion from the interpretation of places.  All these threaten the polarities which structure the dominant geographical imagination. They fragment the dead weight of masculinist space and rupture its exclusions. Above all, they allow for the possibility of a different king of space through which difference is tolerated rather than erased” (155). 

                Paradoxical space is not, however, inherently emancipatory; it remains only a temporary strategy in the context of resistance to hegemonic transparent space.




What would have been different if I’d begun my Ben Sira paper with Rose rather than Soja, or what does Rose add or change now that it’s finished?  One irony is that if I’d begun with Rose I’d have saved myself the never fully resolved confusion about conceptually distinguishing First from Second from Thirdspace.  On the other hand, it was in the very effort to make sense of those categories as they related to my text that the paper emerged. 

While Rose and Soja end up in not dissimilar places—paradoxical space and Thirdspace—their arguing partners are different.  Soja is trying to establish the importance of spatiality in the mix of historicality and sociality, while politicizing the notion of space itself.  Rose is emphasizing the gender of geography against the disciplinary tendency to suppress it while trying to address a major issue in feminist theory regarding Woman vs. women.  Soja’s work lends itself relatively easily to a conversation with biblical studies, since the addition of spatiality to our on-going discussions about biblical history and society makes a lot of obvious sense.  Feminist criticism is certainly also a major part of our discourse, but since Rose is, in effect, theorizing about theory within feminist geography, one has to work a bit harder to get a conversation started. On the other hand, Rose’s work offers a caution against a too easy appropriation of Soja:  her emphasis on the importance of local knowledge in the project of geography, and the strategic rather than permanent value of any theoretical formulation, might make us suspicious about the universalizing generalities of Soja’s spatial trialectic. 

                While Soja’s focus on spatiality relative to historicality and sociality blurs differences between the analysis of ancient and contemporary contexts, facilitating conversation, Rose’s focus on the feminist and the economic aspects of geography sharpens the difference.  It is precisely the changes in production and reproduction in modern techno-industrial capitalism that make application of her theoretical concerns to the ancient world less transparent.  Once again, however, there are things that can be learned by thinking through differences.

                (1)  One of Carol Meyers’ enduring contributions to the social-historical study of women in ancient society was the observation that the public-private distinction that has been taken to characterize the modern world was far less relevant then. The post-modern turn that Rose has to work so hard to give marxist and socialist-feminist geography—theorizing an actual integration in women’s lives of production and reproduction, and thus of private and public—is the simple reality of pre-modern life.  In some respects, then, scholarship on biblical women was quicker to recognize the Foucauldian diffusion of power that such integrated spatiality allows for.  The post-modern integration, of course, does not take the same forms as the pre-modern.  In Ben Sira, one of the major literary-spatial dynamics involves a battle of houses: the house of the priest (or God), the house of (female) Wisdom, the house of the scribe, the house of the (male) citizen.  Some of these houses are more private, some more public.  Yet the domestic metaphor rules, and the gender dynamics are in each case contested and complex.  Although the present version of my paper gives some consideration to the dynamics of the house, this could be further developed. 

                (2)  One of the constant battles post-modernism wages is against the dualisms that characterize much modernist (and prior) thought, among others, the distinction between mind and body which typically corresponds to and reinforces a hierarchical male-female dualism  This distinction is as old as the Greeks, but also definitive of modernism.  Rose follows much feminist theory in seeking both to re-value the body and embodiment (as integrated with rather than opposed to the mind) and to theorize the body as a site of cultural construction.  Ancient Jewish culture generally stands apart from the critique of mind-body dualism, operating as it does with a more unified anthropology.  In spite of this, its male-female dualism is radical.  Indeed, cultural identity is deeply embedded in the gendered body, proving that overcoming mind-body does not solve all the problems?  The gendered body seems to be in fact a particular locus of shame and fear in Ben Sira.  Rose’s observations about the ways in which (gendered) bodies are (variously) located in spaces, and spaces mapped onto bodies, become useful a useful lens through which to view the politics of his anxieties.  Spatiality theory focused on the body thus dovetails with another form of social-scientific analysis I’ve elsewhere applied to Ben Sira—consideration of the honor-shame ideology that underlies this text—to enrich both the reading of the text and also offer further insight into the social context in which it was produced. 

                (3)  Rose’s discussion of the relationship of body and spatiality focuses in part on the (capitalist) male gaze that regards, and thus masters, the woman/property in its purview.  Here the difference between the object of the gaze in ancient times as opposed to modern is both notable and especially intriguing.  The male inclination to equate woman and land, and see both as the soil in which his seed is sown, is ancient and enduring.  A writer like Ben Sira, however, counsels adamantly against precisely looking at a woman, obviously deeply afraid of the mastery that his desire, thus evoked, will exercise over him.  The tension between desire and fear that feminist critics find suppressed in much modern masculinist thought is virtually transparent in the ancient text.  On the other hand, consideration of the gazer and the gazed upon in this work offers another striking insight.  For when Ben Sira looks, he sees, and delights in the vision of, Simeon the high priest.  The gaze that is located in the Temple is homoerotic, a point that merits further unpacking in spatial (and other) terms.

                (4)  I have indicated that ancient Jewish culture is generally not marked by a mind-body dualism.  Yet the cultural niche to which Ben Sira belongs is marked by a newly important intellectual trait, namely, the textualization of tradition.  The production of texts and their authorizing recital and interpretation takes place in spaces.  My paper only begins to suggest the possibilities of thinking spatially about textuality: the physical (First) spaces in which these activities occur, the lived space of those participating in them, the representation of space in text, the textualization of space, and all this in relation to gender.  As Howard Eilberg-Schwartz’s The Savage in Judaism suggests, writing in rabbinic Judaism (and I would argue already in Ben Sira) becomes imbued with gender: words are the new seeds that men sow.  As in the classic mind-body dualism, the false consciousness involved here is that space is irrelevant to this all-male (re)production, which will become convinced of its own universalism.  The work of Gillian Rose would certainly show that it just ain’t so. 


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