II FRENCH FREUD FEMINISM?
What can "feminist" writing possibly mean? Images of the female as persons, strong and weak, admirable and despicable occur in the writing of both men and women. These images, pictures, vignettes, no matter how "progressive" the narrative in which they are embedded, cannot be said to constitute either feminine or feminist writing. Only form—stylistic enactment (aesthetic behavior)—can be feminine. What society has called feminine forms have always been available to both men and women in art as well as life. Feminist writing occurs only when female writers use feminine forms…. At precisely that moment of enactment, feminism as polemic disappears: the female writer has entered the world of the living.Genre Tallique, GLANCES: An Unwritten Book
The use of this quote is not intended to bolster what follows with authority. (Who is Genre Tallique anyway!?) It may indeed be that too much authority has vested the rhetorics of feminist theory. And with just that patriarchal charge we seek to escape. Consider the French-Freud-Lacan-plex staging trans-Oedipal love or death masquerades with some of the best and brightest of the intellectual daughters. Positioning feminist theory in gendered postness at the very moment it should be inventing itself anew. Not that I claim freedom from what Tallique has called cette Électrecution—her ironic term for the sinister cauterizing of the presumed gender wound that invites the feminine to remain transfixed at the mirror stage or in the pre-Oedipal eros interuptus
To be conscious of twentieth-century humanist theory is inevitably to find psychoanalytic narratives winding their strasses and rues through one's mind. In the impacted setting of the psychoanalytic "family romance," where one's cultural space is delimited by the narrative outline of a nineteenth-century authorial parentage and "name of the father" imprimatur, understanding leans toward a very curious vanishing point. In the Freudian master narrative the vanishing point is tagged "resistance" or "denial." Because it punctuates the farthest reach of the authorial point of view, it is anything but innocuous. It lies in wait for bounders and transgressors. Try to pass beyond it—you will either disappear or return home to father, chastened and docile. The at-large vanishing point for women is simply this: to the extent that we venture onto the post-Oedipal playing field of culture, or the sexual politics of the unreconstructed family constellation, our every role, every move is defined by the "law of the father" in search of good wife and mother. This is another installment in the fictive creation of the "eternal feminine" within what Judith Butler calls the "heterosexual matrix":
I use the term heterosexual matrix … to designate that grid of cultural intelligibility through which bodies, genders, and desires are naturalized. I am drawing from Monique Wittig's notion of the "heterosexual contract" and, to a lesser extent, on Adrienne Rich's notion of "compulsory heterosexuality" to characterize a hegemonic discursive/epistemic model of gender intelligibility that assumes that for bodies to cohere and make sense there must be a stable sex expressed through a stable gender (masculine expresses male, feminine expresses female) that is oppositionally and hierarchically defined through the compulsory practice of heterosexuality.
Gender Trouble, 151
Beyond the vanishing point lie shocking scenes: exposed negatives reveal a domimatrix with polymorphous perverse appetites and ambitions wreaking havoc in the popular maxiseries, "Civilization and Miss Content." For Freud "poly" without invidious comparison is always safely and emblematically pre-Oedipal: an immature psychological grammar in which subject has not yet targeted an appropriate object. What has occurred for women in this grim fairy tale is something akin to emotional clitorectomy. The little girl's assumed complicity in the patriarchal construction of the "eternal feminine" means that she must simultaneously valorize and relinquish her femaleness as agent and object of desire. The rich polymorphous text of early female experience is
Freud was above all else a great prose stylist. The literary paradigm of psychoanalytic persuasion and plausibility is, as Freud ruefully/pridefully admitted, the novella. Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment, finds his writing close to the narrative symbolic structures of German fairy tales. What this form entails is a persuasive grammar that gathers force from a particular kind of analogical and metaphorical thinking—one that presumes that the "as/like" and "stands for" relation yields "deeply" significant meaning. A structure in which symbolic codes stabilize an economy of equivalences and equilibria is one in which circularly reinforcing logics can even maintain an uberphallus as the equivalent of an entire system. But the symbolic is not the only logical or associative order of meaning. There is metonymy, as well as metaphor; there are complex dynamic systems and fluidly interactive models, as well as equivalences. The phallus, like the romantic genius and strong poet and symbolic logic it props up, has got to go; the penis may get on quite well without it.
Meanwhile there are other compelling forces in Freud's narrative style. It operates very skillfully as an Aristotelian rhetoric of persuasion. In the psychoanalytic narrative the rhetorical ethos (appeal to respect for the author's character) has been that of courageous patriarchal genius; pathos (appeal to our emotions) that of deeply, aesthetically sensitive patriarchal genius; logos (appeal to our respect for reason) that of rationally masterful, historically knowledgeable, patriarchal genius. It is the confluence of these characteristics in Freud's and, with a different flavor, Lacan's prose that vested the protopsychoanalytic narrative with authority (Ostriker's major concern) and intelligibility (Butler's). Is
In this "progressive" cultural tragedy (drama of the inevitable) we are forever children shaped by the authorial tyranny of the father. Sons carry on the name, the law, the primary text. Daughters dress up in costumes tagged Electra, Jocasta, Iphegenia, Clytemnestra, Medea. Like all disenfranchised peoples, the daughters can submit or self-destruct. We can rebel, displace, deconstruct, subvert but only in the ongoing subtext that is our purported destiny. We cannot author our own play.
This model is only plausible if one narrows the field of vision to the rules of nineteenth-century metarhetorical perspective as syntactic impulsion toward the father, hugging the logomotive track in self-fulfilling linguistic fatalism. With the female Lucifer, Luce Irigaray, comes a different light, voice, text only to return as the redepressed. Isn't this all too familiar? Don't we have to consider that to replicate this particular psychoanalytic model in feminist theory is to perpetuate an exclusionary and suffocating grammar in which to make sense, to be authoritative or intelligible, is to underwrite one's subjugation to a system whose very grounding is scorn for the feminine? The feminine as negative image of the cultural construction of the masculine is distrusted in its openness to multiple—sensual as well as rational—logics. In conceding "the" symbolic order to the long shadow of the name of the father we will remain audience to the shadow theater of Plato's misogynist cave. Why then the voluntary subjection of feminist theoreticians to the tawdry outcome of this narrative line?
Oddly, interestingly, the defensive desire for our own grounding has had the paradoxical effect of making us, as literary feminists, resistant to the use of feminine forms, which (in any era) are neither authoritative nor intelligible by current establishment standards. This, I think is the terminus of a theoretical line whose narrative is constructed on restrictive pre and post axes: pre- and postcultural, pre- and post-Oedipal, pre- and postgenital—ignoring the complex, polymorphous, exploded-cartoon contemporaneity of all active thinking experience. In the still-silent film the proverbial preverbal heroine is still tied to the tracks, silently screaming. She will be run over by the Hegelian-Freudian-Lacanian logomotive because there are no other tracks on the set, no sidelines or margins from which the possibility of liberation beckons, no topological warps or additional dimensions in the flatland
[Working quote: "The critical task for feminism is not to establish a point of view outside of constructed identities; that conceit is the construction of an epistemological model that would disavow its own cultural location.… The critical task is, rather, to locate strategies of subversive repetition" (Butler, Gender Trouble, 147).]
So in a recent remake of this classic Western the woman tied to the tracks may be a feminist who can theorize, parodize, ironize her position but not escape. The movie is shot not in some flimsily constructed studio but on location—the cultural location. This is the repetition compulsion of Gender Trouble, in which the scripted response to entrapment in narrowly binary, essentialist gender identities is the parodic overacting of the silent scream. (In fact a good deal of hyperfeminine social behavior—with its characteristic costumes and gestures—may be just this.) The disruptively audible—if not immediately intelligible—swerve of real gender/genre trouble is possible only if we recognize what has been the continual constituting presence of feminine forms in language. This is the implicit condition of all vitally resonant literatures. The Hegelian-Freudian-Lacanian logomotive is only one among many trains of thought entering into the messy polylectics, polylogues that create the live culture of our language.
What I'm looking for then is a polymorphous perversely startling point from which can spring the possibility of a feminist poethics—aesthetic practice that reveals, in the course of its enactment, the powers of feminine poethics in female hands. Hands freed from holding mirror/speculum to exemplary images of an immaculately (or disgracefully) conceived feminine. This is not to disavow the necessary sociopolitical analysis of boundaries that have confined women's lives or the legal work still needed to secure women's rights. But the aesthetic project is at a juncture where the radii of possibilities (and improbabilities) must reach beyond the mirror stage.
The room inside me has disappeared. At night, when all is quiet, I no longer hear the pictures shifting on the walls when I walk fast. Only the pump in the basement. I wonder whether the space has folded in on itself like a tautology, or been colonized. You think the wine has washed it out,
The Reproduction of Profiles, 71
We know, with the help of Foucault, Judith Butler, and others that the power to make useful meaning (OE mænan— to mean/to moan) of one's historical experience does not lie in accepting the outline of one's "nature" narrated therein. Hope for the categorically oppressed lies in constructionist readings that expose the contingency of those very categories. These are not most helpful as regressive justifications of one's complicity in a degraded status or in generically pumped up self-esteem. (The palliative strategies of victimhood.) The powerful project is the invention of a polymorphous future. To move from the simple harmonics of moans (whether of pain or jouissance) to a polyphony of exploratory means, from narrative therapy to linguistic experiment, from a picture to a use theory of meaning is to open meaning to radical revision in the act of multiple language games and new forms of life.
Is it plausible to think of the possibilities of a literary feminism in this way? If it is, then perhaps the sense of entrapment in a language-culture with a predetermined power structure and coercive symbolic coherence can be superseded. Perhaps we can cancel our ad nauseam encores as ambiguously smiling, subtextual female repressed. Perhaps we can assume the active textual project of entertaining multiple, complex possibilities/improbabilities/unintellig abilities in our languages and lives. There are of course obstacles. Chief among them has been the picture theory of gender that lodges the feminine exclusively in female bodies. In attempting to identify a strong feminine tradition in literature the search for ancestors has been limited to writers who enacted a restricted symbolic code and who could retroactively pass the Olympic committee's hormonal assay as F.
The most interesting thing about our "different voices" may be that feminine modes of thinking, as they are currently located and described, are, with respect to masculine modes, radically and robustly asymmetrical. Not post but extra. The fertile excess of culture nurtured in the playing field of complexity. The feminine is culturally constructed as