When the Questions are “On the Move”: Gender, Transnational Locations, and the Politics of Style

Anita Helle

In our linked essays on the status of gender as a critical category in modernism, Mary DeShazer and I are interested in the question, “What new ground needs to be broken, what new questions explored?”  We bring a particular interest in the relation of modernism’s aesthetic traditions to rhetorics of emancipation across national boundaries, including but not limited to and interest in feminist rhetorics and their sociopoetic implications. 

Critical overviews of gender and modernism have acknowledged the substantial legacies of gynocriticism (enlarging the canon of female modernists) and gynesis (the feminine as metaphor of historical process and/or reading effect in texts by men and women).   Marianne DeKoven’s deconstructive analysis of gender as the sous-rature of high modernism predicts that as we learn more about the “variegated manifestations” of gender and modernism, gender may appear as an “unsynthesized” dialectic” that seeks neither unity or resolution (The Cambridge Companion to Modernism, 192).  A transnational feminist focus on women and gender has sometimes been defined as a concentration on socio-political contingencies of women’s modernity, as distinguished from literary modernism, which focuses on the cultural aspects (Lowe and Lloyd).  But such separations are too rigid for the study of modernism and gender in transnational locations, and may contribute to discursive hardening.  We find that when questions of gender and modernism migrate across national boundaries, they reveal differences in the time-levels of modernity, in the socio-economic-political conditions, and different constructions of the category of the aesthetic, all of which need to be taken into account.

Rita Felski’s historicist and interdisciplinary approach to the criss-crossing of the aesthetic and the political in The Gender of Modernity (1995) and Doing Time (2000) is exemplary of a supple and flexible attitude toward “locational” constructions of gender and modernity.  For something has happened to enlarge the discursive and material categories in which gender appears since “around 1990,” when Bonnie Kime Scott’s introduction to a “new scope of gender and modernism” included “cultural critiques” as only one among a long list of gendered modernism’s many dimensions (14-15).  By Felski’s account, the cultural meanings of modernity1 have enlarged to include all of the following: 1) an unfinished revolution around the rhetoric of liberty and self-expression; 2) debates about the gendered public sphere and avant-garde institutions; 3) debates about gender within modernism’s global reach; 4) documents, reports, manifestos, and literary expressions articulating a  gendered basis for the “experience of modernity” (see also Clark 1991; Appadurai 1996;  Lyon 1999).  As cultural meanings of modernity have become more prismatic, gender has become more refractive of these differential debates.2 The starting question Felski would have us ask thus takes the “cultural” as a primary term: “How do established approaches to gender and modernism fall short of women’s participation in the varied cultures of modernity?”   In 1990, Bonnie Kime Scott’s publication of Gender and Modernism, at the time an important synthesis, appears retrospectively to have marked the emergence of questions (with the historical weight that “emergence” implies), amidst a wide matrix of influences and ever-expanding questioning of cultur al location.3 Our genealogical maps of this emergence would insistently include gender as a critical category in conjunctures of gender and genre, as well as gender and race relations; they include local/global cross-cultural encounters that have been especially significant for analyzing non-elite subjects and genres despised by modernism (genres  such as elegy, autobiography, political orature); they may include the splicings of public and private in traumas of dislocation  and catastrophes of migration.

I have been working on a project that concerns problems in the containment of representation for gender and genre relations, specifically in modern American poetry’s gendered constructions of elegy.  The dynamics of genre and gender containment participate in the ironies of modernism’s “making new” and within a variety of claims about modern American poetry’s claims to status in a new global field.   Susan Stewart has theorized the way cultural processes of  “distressing” genres—rescuing, refurbishing, or antiquing old genres—is one way that modernity renders strangeness familiar, recreating the desire for speaking objects as touchstones  of public memory and  self-reference  (66-67).   The heroic, monumental modernism of figures such as Pound, and later Olson, is well known to have globalized an aesthetic of loss and recovery, promoting the disappearance and reappearance of a past as an archive of modern memory.  Through such processes—of reading backward into generic histories, and re-gendering their traditions—the idea of what counts as losses worth mourning in poetry and the styles appropriate to modern lament  (whether openly emotive or rigorously analytical) sometimes becomes more narrowly archived.   Hence elegy is declared “over” for modernism with Pound’s warning about the dangerous “precipice of lamentation,” and yet elegy continues to leave its distressed imprint on American lyric poetry well into mid-century, with the proliferation of family elegy in the confessional lyric.4   Yet from the perspective of a the varied cultures of female modernity that Felski asks us to acknowledge, the modern elegiac tradition is clearly a broader one, including the language of public and civic rhetoric as well as the writing of disaster around historical trauma, genocide, forced migration or m ass epidemics (AIDS elegy being only the most obvious recent example the problem of containment and resignifying of gender and genre).  The globalization of modernist aesthetics, with its neo-romantic fascination with loss, nostalgia, and remembered-forgetting, appears from a transnational feminist perspective less an erasure of the past, a melancholic mourning (in the sense of a Kristevan semiotic), than an encryptment of uncomfortable narratives about cultural violence.5

The complex poetic testimonies of American modernist Muriel Rukeyser (and her frequent, lavish invocation of  elegy) serve as an example of the phenomenon  of “distressing” genres and reworking historically uncomfortable gendered associations.   Rukeyser’s “The Dam” (one of the few formally experimental poems by female modernists anthologized in the Pierre Joris and Jerome Rothenberg 1995 anthology of international modernism, Poems for the Millennium) recognizes America as the symbol of modernity’s dream of globalized power; her poem, “The Book of the Dead” renders America’s determined blindness to class and race relations as a type of historical forgetting.  The representations of silicon dust, exposure to which resulted in the deaths of working class and black migrant laborers in the largest industrial disaster of the twentieth century at that time, allow contradictory readings.  Lethal yet illuminating—a shining, permeating white substance—dust covers the North American landscape and penetrates its dreams.  Recently critics have suggested that Rukeyser’s frequent use of a   dialogic structure foregrounding local differences in representing roads, bridges, dams, and other symbols of America’s modernity also works to counteract nationalistic discourses that gloss such differences  (Lowney 196).  Rukeyser insists on resignifying the rhetorical as well as poetic traditions of civic elegy, from a narrow focus on individuated and nationalistic losses, to a poetic mourning bowed by the weight of the collective.   In a later poem about the rise of fascism between world wars, “Kathe Kollwitz,” she conjures the threat of  historical again trauma by joining an image of global  production (borrowing also the imagery of Kollwitz’s Lamentation) with the image of modern death—the  “big hands of the world  of death.” 

Yet for all her commitment to working through the relationship between ideology and linguistic expression, Rukeyser’s reception among modernist contemporaries on the left and the right is also gendered.  For some of the same reasons that she is not always seen as formally experimental, her insistence on blending mourning with outrage was misrecognized.  At the Partisan Review, her poems written to mourn and commemorate deaths of marines and civilian volunteers who defended Wake Island in the Pacific during World War II earned her the disparaging label “poster girl of Wake Island,” transforming her reputation from serious poet to political bunny among left-wing intellectuals (Brock 258).  The reasons for their disparagement are complex: the poems include a high-flown rhetoric of political orature with a patient eye for documentary methods and refusal to keep emotion under wraps.  Rukeyser’s poetic is conscious of coloring, not only emotional coloring in the traditional impressionistic sense, but the relation of emotional coloring to the role of racialized histories of violence    Her dreams of poetry’s emotional power and modernity’s encrypted violence is such that it requires active struggle with such a range and variety of genres as to indicate forms “forever broken and remade.”

As we consider the varied cultures of female modernity in relation to modernism’s gendered literary practices, it may be important, as Susan Friedman (1998) has argued,  that  transnational feminist practice apply the lessons of situational and relational criticism to the politics of knowledge and the act of criticism itself.6  This entails exploring reflexively an ethics and a politics of style in critical writing, as well as interpretative method.  Friedman urges that significant components of an ethics and a politics of style includes recognition of varied audiences for investigations of gendered modernism across national boundaries.  Such inquiry may call into question the status of textuality itself across these boundaries; it can and should raise questions about what voices might be involved or included within the telling and retelling of cultural narratives that fill in the gendered gaps (Friedman 33-35).  What recently emerges from attention to such risks is also a heightened geopolitical sensitivity to the questions that may be especially invoked by space or place, as well as the differences between the enounced and the subject of the enunciation.  For instance, in our collaborative writing Mary DeShazer and I evoke a familiar gynocritical trope of collaboration.  However, in constructing “linked papers,” together yet separate, our intention is not to fuse homogeneous perspectives at a singular horizon, but to suggest several variations on the theme of what happens when questions of gendered modernism migrate across national boundaries, opening a space for dialogue and differences.

Opportunities to historicize critical practices of reading gender and modernism also remind us that if we expect to get beyond either-or stalemates (those that may divide perspectives developed from within literary criticism, for example, from those perspectives which develop from within a women’s studies focus on transnational identities), we need to understand how to make interrelated reading strategies, tropes, assumptions of “reading on the move” more visible.  For starters, as Friedman argues, we may want to pinpoint how aspects of gynetics and gynocriticism (themselves cultural constructs) already have and continue to be mutually interwoven, enlarged, qualified, and extended in transnational contexts.   Such critical practices may invoke a kind of focused wandering, even a pleasure in the theoretical awkwardness of asymmetry and disjunction.7   Here are a few of the critical practices and assumptions that may be especially productive as the status of gender as a critical category in modernism continues to challenge fixed boundaries:

1. The practice of refusing the modernist narrative of rupture with the 19th century This reading practice revises, amplifies, and extends the move of Bonnie Kime Scott (7) and others to put modernism’s temporalities “under erasure” in an effort to expose historical exclusions of women writers from canons, periodicities, and generic practices.  Refusals of rupture in style and periodization has productively revealed modernism’s deeper continuities (the continued presence of realism and melodrama, for instance) and interweavings of masculine and feminine within male and female-authored texts.  Yet ruptures of the “new” and social crises of representation are not simply mimetic of each other, or readable as synchronous moments.  Paul Gilroy is eloquent on the point that the “double consciousness” of black modernity may need to include the double consciousness of temporalities, since it absorbs, from within and outside Western rhetoric, the language of enlightenment rationality and democratic traditions of free expression (48).  The expectation that gendered expressions of black Atlanticism might necessarily express a stylistic break with the canons of 19th century poetic expressions then, may be as narrow as the old expectation that modern blank Atlanticism, is cut off from traditions of international modernist experimentation as a primary source of inspiration and ambition.

2. The practice of resisting formal linguistic “experimentation” as the privileged center of modernist creativity. Related to 1 (and well underway), Scott’s gathering of representative modernist voices at numerous points cautions against equating formal conservativism with political quiescence.  Notably, this is the argument made by Celeste Schenck for inclusion of émigré Australian poet Anna Wickham, whose “modernism” might be evaluated through a number of differential axes, and certainly by more than her relation to traditions privileging linguistic experimentation.  Rachel Blau DuPlessis has articulated a practice of reading termed “social philology,” which augments the challenge of modernism’s “deep textures” (26) and sociopolitical coding to reveal national mediations and intertextualities of cross-racial representations.8  As cultures of modernity (and women’s place in them) become more prismatic, we may want to ask, “How many ways are there to experiment?  Does experimentation in traditional forms of civic rhetoric, where the subject involves shifts in lyric forms of address, count as part of an aesthetic tradition of linguistic experimentation?” 

3. The practice of reading incorporation and melancholia as cultural symptomsThis is part of the large-scale project of reconsidering the gendering of emotion in modernism, a project to which my own explorations of pathos and Mary DeShazer’s explorations of languages of liberation in political orature contributes.  Melancholia, as Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok teach us, is a term of historical structure, as well as figural content.  Their revisionary interpretation of the modernist tomb, crypt, word within the psyche as a “gaps left within us by the secrets of others” (171-76) and opens the way for new interpretations of poetry’s critical relationship to public memory.  Whereas incorporation and encryption may be considered in some way a failure in the psychic limits of imagining and representing the losses of others in terms recognizable by and including the social body, the traditional meanings of introjection (“healthy mourning,” in the Freudian scheme), may be re-envisioned as a way to describe an acceptance of processes which demand negotiation and transformation of the boundaries of the isolate self and the isolated nation. 

4. The practice of locating the material and discursive markers of “diasporic” reading.   Fluidity, polyphony, palimpsest, border-crossing, migration—when these are deployed metaphorically—can make strange bedfellows with postcolonial and feminist transnational critique in an era when modernity’s global “flows” can have benign or, as  we have seen, catastrophic consequences.  Metaphorical inflections as part of our critical vocabularies can enlarge or reduce effects of power, fleshing out its manifestations in the imagination of universal embodiments, or enhancing and intertwining specific histories.  From Euro-American perspective, as a number of feminist critics interested in transnational practice have noted, such tropes in academic criticism have enjoyed the privilege of association with modern aestheticism and histories of cultural exoticism, often within the very trajectories and locations of loss and power that interests in re-theorizing and remaking gendered identities seek to redress and de-naturalize (Massey 1994; Kaplan 1996).  The ongoing, complex deployments of gender in modernism are such that specifying whatever we will mean by reading gender diasporically, “on the move,” and in relation to global scenes of historical trauma across a long twentieth century will be a task both difficult and necessary.

Works Cited

Abraham, Nicolas and Maria Torok. The Shell and the Kernal. Trans. Nicholas Rand Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.

Appadurai, Arjun.  Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996.

Brock, James.  “The Perils of a ‘Poster Girl’: Rukeyser, Partisan Review and Wake Island,” “How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?” The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser, ed. Anne F. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman.  New York: St. Martin’s Press.  254-63.

DeKoven, Marianne, “Modernism and Gender.” The Cambridge Companion to Modernism.  Ed. Michael Levenson.  New York: Cambridge UP, 1999.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau.  Genders, Races and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-34.  New York: Cambridge UP, 2001.

Felski, Rita.  The Gender of Modernity.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.

_____.  Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture.  New York: NYU Press, 2000.

Friedman, Susan.  Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.

Lowney, John.  “Truths of Outrage, Truths of Possibility: Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘The Book of the Dead,’” The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser, ed. Anne F. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.  

Kaplan, Caren.  Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement.  Durham: Duke UP, 1996.

Lowe, Lisa and David Lloyd, eds.  The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

Massey, Doreen.  Space, Place, and Gender.  Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1994.

Ramazani, Jahan.  Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney.   Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.

Rothenberg, Jerome and Pierre Joris, eds.  Poems for the Millennium: Volume One-From Fin-de-Siecle to Negritude.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.

Rukeyser, Muriel. The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser.  New York: McGraw Hill, 1978.

Scandura, Jani and Michael Thurston, eds.  Modernism, Inc: Body, Memory, Capital.  New York: NYU Press, 2001.

Scott, Bonnie Kime, ed. The Gender of Modernism: A Critical Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.

Stewart, Susan.  Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representation. Durham: Duke UP, 1994.

1 The tensions among several uses of the term “cultural” are inevitably in play (and at stake) in historically specific references to uses of gender within feminist cultural criticism of the last decade.  In a useful move, Appadurai (14-15) recognizes that tension between the anthropological use of “culture” as an adjective to describe dimensions of phenomenon, and the humanities-based  notions of “culture” with respect to aesthetic expressions and movements, often universalized in its meanings,  may require the use of the term “culturalist” to refer to the rhetoric of groups “consciously in the making.”  Appadurai’s proposal for a distinct use of “culturalist” is logically intertwined with feminist cultural history’s interest in “rhetorics” as intertwined with “poetics.”

2 “Around 1990,” there are parallel developments in the treatment of gender as a critical category in modernism and gender as critical category in feminist political theory.  An axis of sameness/difference opened onto more fluid and shifting conceptions,  as “alterities” shifting with social structure and geopolitical location (Eisenstein 1990; Friedman 1998).

3 If the use of gender as critical category in cultural theory can be figured as the emergence of a matrix of influences “around 1990,” other significant texts include Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism (Mohanty, Russo, and Torres, eds. 1991); Sentimental Modernism (Clark 1991); In Other Worlds and the Post-Colonial Critic (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in 1987 and 1997); The Pink Guitar (1991);  The Black

Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness (Paul Gilroy 1993); and Changing Our Own Words: Essays in Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women (Cheryl Wall, ed. 1990).

4I follow Ramazani’s history of genre here, noting that a number of women poets continue a 19th century tradition of feminization of the elegy by writing elegy in “oblique” or “undeclared” forms (373.n63).  My argument augment’s Ramazani’s  Anglo-American emphasis in stressing the difference that transnational perspectives may make in our view of the genre’s development.

5 Scandura and Thurston provide a useful outline of the implications of melancholic enryption applied to historical narrative and repetition in their introduction to Modernism, Inc.: Body, Memory, Capital (see esp. 1-11).

6 A dip into crude empiricism:  The use of gender as a critical category has not taken over the field, nor have deployments of gender as a critical category (broadly considered to include studies which touch on women and gender in modernism, gay/lesbian/queer theory-inspired critiques, critiques of heteromasculinity, and studies of performativity of gender) have ranged from 1 in 40 (in 1994) to 1 of 5 or 6 (in 1996 and 1997) to 1 in 8 or 9 in 2000-01.  In PMLA, 7 of 17 articles on modern authors and topics published between 1996 and 1999 used gender as one among a spectrum of relevant critical differences.  Thanks to Patrick Query for assistance in this research.

7 Felski (1996) offers the notion of a critical perspective on gender, modernism, modernity that incorporates this suggestion of wandering and disjunction in the oscillation between “illumination and critique” (33).

8 “Social philology,” according to DuPlessis, demonstrates an attentiveness to the “events of form” (10-11) of both indigenous and high modernist expression, attending to socio-political detail and expressive dissonance, slippages, affirmations, and quirks within a range of verbal acts from discourses to the level of the phoneme.

Bio: Anita Helle is Associate Professor of English and Director of the College of Liberal Arts Center for Excellence at Oregon State University. She has published articles on feminism and cultural theory, poetry, and poetics in American Literature, Rhetoric Review, American Literary Scholarship, and National Women’s Studies Association Journal. Her current book project is Reinventing Elegy.

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