Brief commentary, new slants, current scholarly finds are invited for our Alerts section. Poets and scholars are equally welcome to comment.
In our French Feminisms seminar last fall, The Newly Born Woman by Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément was read by one student thus: Cixous's piece is "pre-mirror stage, stuck in and returning to the Imaginary, whereas Clément articulates a continuous return to the Symbolic: neither position is adequate because neither deals with "the instability between the two.''(1) The questions that bring me to writing spring from the immense difficulties in--and desire to--create and live within a (feminist) politic that would be adequate to that very instability. I have learned from and had faith in varying feminist positions outside that instability whose existence and predominance have, for me, often pointed to painfully avoided silences in our own voices. This paper is guided by a desire to speak from and to that instability, from a place whose borders haven't been tested, whose terrain I at least am unfamiliar with, to learn how to create a politics that will continually move toward the unfamiliar, uncomfortable, not-yet-understood.
As a beginning, some questions:
Underlying and organizing various feminist discursive strategies(2) (which include not only Cixous and Clément's, but also the models offered us by Irigaray, de Beauvoir, Jones and Wenzel's, and our own speaking to each other (as a class)) is the crucial question of how we think about and situate "the other woman." How do we read her (in ourselves and elsewhere) deconstructively, that is, both sympathetically and critically?
Can we practice criticism without reproducing the Hegelian dialectical movement of victory, hierarchy, struggle for mastery; can we let go of the truth of the one without losing all struggle to the unmeaningful differences of humanism (flat plurality, civic equality)? A question on a double register: both political (to refuse ethnocentrism, truth-values, un-self-critical rational discourse) and psychoanalytic (how to read for/from the other in ourselves, to explore and allow for split/multiple subjectivity--refusing to reproduce the myth of the individual in our practice). To move from the other woman as object to be acted upon in order to ask this question: how does she move through and structure us, our work, our practice? How do the stories we tell about the other limit our ability to ask questions? What work/writing/effort do we choose to call political?
Feminist theory began, in many ways, as a critique of the traditional notion of politics as applying only to those spheres which are said to organize and regulate public life: monetary and legislative. Yet in our own work the question remains troubling: is écriture feminine, for example, political work? Does it count? Or is it rather "self-indulgent," "fun," "embarrassing," "inspiring but not useful?" At what cost--and to whom---do we delimit our notion of the political? And can we keep collapsing the personal and political spheres in our efforts to move away from the opposition itself?
The preceding web of questions has led me to ask more specific and perhaps more useful questions. In those questions--that could easily organize a thesis, guide a discussion, or move toward theory-production--are hidden other(ly) questions that most likely could not offer such functionality. Yet could we learn from these questions? Could the following enable us to learn about spaces that perhaps cannot be taught?
How do we value and (re)produce knowledge in the university and in the classroom? Privileging the acts of writing and speaking creates a hierarchy where those of us who have always known how to speak may be pitted against those who are struggling to learn what they don't already know. Learned as a child for survival, born of psychic pain: the university rewards me for endlessly repeating what I already know how to do, to speak well and speak the same, telling the same story again and again.
Hovering outside this economy of real engagement as oration are other questions, possibilities. Does argument stripped of "excess" silence the body, desire, need, psychic pain? And when are our theories mirror images of the repressed? (Can I ask this without risking a pop psychology reduction of the desire for change?) Why theory? A painfully inadequate response to the use/abuse of our bodies and minds? --Or the fierce desire to interrupt histories of abuse? Could the inscription of excess--writing the body--that Cixous and others engage in be useful as a model in a classroom as a means by which to speak as well as write differently?
Institutionalizing a classroom where students are credited for speaking has been decades (at least) in the making. Indeed, most of us had to endure years of imposed silence in grade school before proving ourselves capable of intelligent discussion. The history of the silencing of women is even fiercer: tongues cut out of mouths, bodies burned, clitoridectomies, and more recently an entire industry of psychoactive drugs (prescribed primarily to women by doctors other than psychiatrists). I am grateful to the struggles that have provided me with a structure that allows (if not enables) women to speak: my concerns are in no way meant to deny or simplify this history. Yet as structures, systems, relations of power change, I (we?) must continue to question even that which is ostensibly organized in our best interests.
When, where does speaking become privileged over silence, and when do we finalize that into a fixed hierarchy? Silence as oppression, pain, refusal, denial of our voices--of course: yet could silence, too, be a particular strategy, a form of struggle in some instances? Through silence, I choose how I participate in the construction of difference--a method, perhaps, to dislodge, disorient, those conversations (written, spoken, and other) in which I am already positioned against, given no choice other than opposition;
The choice of silence is also a method: it circumvents the economy wherein my ability to speak becomes an opportunity to oppress, de-value, silence those who have had to learn other skills to survive. ". . . it is women's silence, their silent bodies . . . which regulates the smooth exchange between men.''(9) And if I continue to tell the same story, the story of sameness, stagnation, eternity, death, am I not producing a more devastating silence? A new form of silence? A refusal, then, to find/create myself, my theories, my practice and politics, in what I already know and already know how to say.
What could we learn from a practice of listening? Listening to inhabit the other within, listening to hear the other in the other. Learning to listen differently (listening to learn differently) to the other within, elsewhere, in the other, here. Creating a subjectivity whose remembering is enabled by a continuous return to listening. If "it is possible to hear what can't be spoken,''(10) could we learn to love our listening selves as abundantly productive?
Is it possible to create identities as a listening subject (a subject who (always) already knows how to speak) yet not that of the analyst--to disrupt transference, to listen without being the subject-who's-supposed-to-know?
To listen as a way of speaking-being? (and I remain haunted by the possibility that there is a point at which what one knows, needs to learn, and needs to communicate cannot be represented in language (or elsewhere) without a terrific violence to possibility itself.)
To listen as a way of speaking? To speak as a listening subject: could we learn to ask questions that honor what could be thought, what is felt and desired behind the words, questions that allow words to float and flow over and through intention and the plethora of significations, a way of listening/hearing that honors possibility over literality, complexity more than debate, the shared sensibility of wanting change more than the production of struggle's theory?
And a way of writing that would effect this listening-being? What would it look like? How would it feel? (Have Cixous and Irigaray given us a taste of this already?) How would we feel/find ourselves in it--in a language where we could not fall back on an economy of the same, identification, self/other, true/false, good/bad, feminist/apolitical?
1. Faith Beckett, French Feminist Theory seminar, 1987.
Kerry Edwards lives in San Francisco, cooks for Taste Catering, and volunteers as a tutor at Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin district.
. . . affection gathers, partial to particularity, in a letter, in the social body, itself into a text:
To a preserving order, uncertainty is imperative. In Metamorphopsia organization is "semiotic motility:"** "the sign is returned to the tree / Turn to the self-propelling object". (64) Local conditions affect activity, constituent elements are mutually responsive, delicately, as "flocks of words flying together tense / as an order" (Susan Howe, Pythagorean Silence). Out of the diffuse sound of "noise" impulses accumulate erotically into seizures of rhythmic recurrence, fits of song--
isolate vertically spreading
So as recurrences, rhymes, echoes, "tensions animate their regions" (79), a region which is "neutral and free" (85), an undivided territory outside the grid zone of "terrifying gingham" where "striped progress is violence/closure rhyming with ticking" (77), "reasons falling down" (84), where proposition collapses and
alphabet overrides that accuracy "it is"
"proposed overlapping" (93) at peripheral junctures, undefended borders with "action in the middle" (3)--place of transformation, metamorphosis of parts--words, sentences, things, places ideas, voices fly together in context and paranomasic affinities "spell by binding" (4) words on the page to shadows/doubles of "missing parts" (8): texts, phrases, words behind this text or elsewhere within it. As, "sceptical, movement plays there / apparitions grow, are absent" (51), what is seen/not seen is colloidal, is always of the same disturbance, volatile activity of metamorphopsic (visually disturbed) image: word/image/image/thing "brilliant diffusion speaking in scale" (74). Vision/reading plays at the periphery, thinks synesthetically, as if thought were sense, "my mind in my eye / a house full of examinations" (85), and a matter of touch:
collusion: to doubt is to touch
Here myths convene, perhaps collude: Cænis, who, after being raped by Neptune, was transformed into a man, an invincible warrior, and again, after being driven as a stake into the ground, upon death, back into a woman; and Shekaniah, who went blind from weeping (84). But the warrior of this writing is a maternal warrior--with "pencils crossed in the bacon" (7), fiercely generous: into this undivided region of "metonymy, revelry" (86), "considerable dust, sun" (53), also safety pins, galoshes, cereal boxes, carpets, beds, admitted also are geometry, history, industrialists, museums, "the Ministry of Unrest":
you are in charge of a terrible animation
"unmotivated the fundamental level is heat" (79)--body heat, magnetic heat of gestural conversation, mutual knowing, of "Chinese cryptesthesia" (11): maternal ideogrammatic clairvoyance. "The body is expressed by the reversible corporality of words" (Anne-Marie Albiach, Notes Following the Interview, ACTS 4).
Here is a sense: body/world/book--itinerant, looking for a place, a house, a native land: "templates yet to be" (30). Perhaps it is "her world" that Rimbaud anticipated "of strange, unfathomable things. . . " "We shall take them, we shall understand them," he wrote. But "you can't ellipt it," "insert continuous beside understanding" (82); this is a community of drastic generosity where
* All page numbers in parentheses are from Metamorphopsia, Potes and Poets Press Inc., Elmwood, Connecticut, 1988.
** Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language, Columbia University Press: New York: 1984.
Margy Sloan is a poet who lives in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in ACTS, HOW(ever), and in Mirage: The Women's Issue, no. 3. She has recently collaborated with English visual artist Penelope Downes on a portfolio of poems and etchings called Infiltration.