Carla HarrymanWomen’s Writing: Hybrid Thoughts
on Contingent Hierarchies and Reception

by Carla Harryman

artwork by Jo Ann Ugolini
(click on artwork to see
full-size version)


The philosopher can speak of everything he feels. Erotic experience will commit him to silence.

–George Bataille, "Sanctity, Eroticism, and Solitude"

But illegitimate off-spring are often unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers after all are inessential.

–Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the late Twentieth Century"


1. Too much literature

Thirteenth-century Margery Kemp–a successful businesswoman, lusty wife, and mother of many children had what seems to be a mid-life crisis. She wept profusely at her visions of Jesus, went off on pilgrimages, exhausted her fellow pilgrims with her plaintive weeping, and risked heresy in her numerous premature bids for sanctity, which were continuously refused her. But she did enter the literary canon through her written record, her written complaint regarding her love for Jesus and her need to be a Saint. She didn’t get what she wanted but she did something that "we" wanted. "We," this provisional literary sensus communus, transformed the self-appointment into art.

Thus one can and cannot name oneself a saint.

Everything is always changing.

Including the value(s) or meanings in our time of certain writers such as Sappho or Ezra Pound. When Page DuBois asserts that Sappho made love a philosophical category, she changes the patriarchal canon by inserting desire, not only through her reinterpretation of Sappho’s writing but by exposing the devices for canon formation. That philosophy and poetry are separate categories is a construction. DuBois utilizes a feminist Desire to reform canonical readings of Sappho and in so doing she alters genre categories that privilege philosophy over poetry.

I want to "master" all sides of this question. All of the relationships between poetry and philosophy. This is power. Why do I/we love power? (The love of power being [a] little fascist in all of us.[1]) What I want is not possible. There is too much literature.

2. Modernism and Power, Post-modernism and Politics

["Pablo & Matisse have a maleness that belongs to genius. Moi aussi…perhaps"[2] ]

Self-nomination is terribly unattractive, don’t you think? Is there a point at which pushing one’s way into the world does not turn into self-nomination? Did not T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound self-nominate? Did not H.D. self-nominate? Although she did not murder her child, she gave it over and, like Agamemnon, she absented herself to the Trojan situation, island-hopping through her undone and rather abstruse loyalties and disloyalties to antique deities. These she resurrected, refashioned, and loved unlinked from the commune of profane domesticity. Female self-naming is always tainted. It suggests fakery, abandonment, that old nineteenth-century hysteria.[3] It suggests biography rather than a life lived in symbolic acts. Or female self-naming identifies that which is tainted in the act of patriarchal appointment, self-appointment or otherwise.

I didn’t mean this essay to be going in this direction: it just slipped out. As an image suggested itself to me. That of Guiellermo Gomez-Pena and Roberto Sifuentes disguised as the robbers crucified alongside Jesus and affixed to crosses on a Marin County Californian beach as a 1994 art protest against then-governor, Pete Wilson’s "xenophobic immigration politics." Gomez-Pena writes:

Our audience of over 300 people each received a handout, asking them to "free us from our martyrdom as a gesture of political commitment." However, we had miscalculated their response. Paralyzed by the melancholia of the image, it took them over three hours to figure out how to get us down…We were carried to a nearby bonfire and nurtured back to reality, while some people in the crowd rebuked those who were trying to help us, saying "Let them die!"

Photographs of the event were quickly picked up by the media, and the piece became international news…(102-103)

Although I do not entirely doubt that melancholia moved the crowd to paralysis, I also can’t help but imagine that there was something in addition to the mournful affect of the performed image conditioning the crowd’s response–the experience of being a passive audience in those secular religious situations preserved and presenced in art galleries, museums, and theaters to name those institutions most linked to the construction of disinterested contemplation of aesthetic/cultural objects. And here the artist had superimposed himself, affixed himself as a symbol to the symbol of the cross, such that he became exemplary in the way, a secular way, a Christ or a robber on a crucifix is exemplary as an aesthetic artifact, as something taken out of a religious hegemonic context and put into a secular hegemonic context. Even if there were no museum walls framing the work, the work may have invoked the conditions that a traditional museum context places on artifacts. In any case, Gomez Pena was attempting to make public in relationship to a symbolic social hierarchy the circumstance of the "robber" (read the racialized underclass) using the iconography of sanctity.

And isn’t this mythic melancholia, as it resonates within an originary event, a response to hostility? In the biblical mythic time, those who would take the robbers down from the cross would be scorned, ridiculed, doomed. I assume then that the hostile element in this present crowd is significant. Doesn’t this present hostility also produce the present melancholia and inertia? It must function as a prohibition.

Can new meaning fit into old forms?[4] In this case, what is an old form? Maybe the answer here lies in how old the old form is, how under-used or ubiquitous, how available for re-use. The Pena/Sifuentes piece is full of semi-positive outcomes and semi-negative charges. Here, hierarchy (old forms) and democracy ("new meaning" or a pixilation of power which unevenly distributes and charges among partly passive/partly active subjects) meet.

What I am trying to show is that there is a complex relationship between hierarchic signs and democratic impulses and that the inactivity or "useless" activity (silence of the crowd) is related to the hierarchic model of both spiritual melancholia and aesthetic "disinterest" as it tries to enter an idealized democratization based on action. The polemical allegory of the work of art is that if you can get "us" down from the cross, you can discover your own political agency. But that allegory is nevertheless connected to the pacifying image of the cross, the necessary hostility of the onlookers, and the contemplative demand of the traditional work of art.

I admire the Sifuentes/Pena artwork and think there is value in Pena’s ability to interpret his works in a way that the political agency of the work outlives (at least, to some extent) the art. However, I question Pena’s subordinating of some people’s political animosity to his narrative that preserves an aura of sanctity in its representations of the crowd’s "melancholia" as the cause of the group’s inability to act.

In all of her writing but quite manifestly in "War/Poverty/Writing," Leslie Scalapino replaces subordination in narrative re-presentation with "present time." "The connection to oneself is dropped."

So that one can see.[5] Can one also imagine being seen in this manner?

Does recognition exist in the "unfreedom" of society, where as in seeing and in making "the connection to oneself is dropped?"

Yet, the desire for recognition (for what one, for instance, has produced in the making) is the desire to be recognized precisely, to be named correctly, to have one’s concerns represented properly. This too is impossible in a hierarchic model of canonicity which is constructed on the basis of hegemonic misrecognitions and in the preservation of categories that for instance draw relations between artists and saints.[6]

A problem for the artist is that "true" recognition also means exposure.

3. Eroticism, Solitude, and Philosophy

In his 1955 essay, "Sanctity, Eroticism, and Solitude," George Bataille (both philosopher and novelist) writes, "Just now I shall be content to look at the emotion of sanctity on the one hand and at the emotion of eroticism on the other, in so far as each has extreme intensity. My meaning is that with these two emotions one brings us closer to other men and the other cuts us off from them and leaves us in solitude." "…the philosophical experience as such excludes both these emotions."

Writing/poetry, that medium of language–Eros and knowledge–Eros leaves one in solitude. The desire for canonicity requires, if one follows Bataille’s model of intensity, a paradoxical relationship to the erotic: that one give Eros up in order to be brought "closer to men."

Within this model, philosophy or criticism or surveillance or witnessing or describing a primary text or theory or the kind of presentation which I am now engaged in as I speak this text in public does not exist in the sacred time of intensity but in profane/daily/work time.

Within Bataille’s hierarchic model, in order for the primary writing to speak for itself, in spite of all the/its assertions that it does speak for itself, the reader must enter the intensity of the writing. This is both pleasurable and difficult and sometimes impossible for the reader must be willing to accept its exposure.

In my experience, teaching writing by women can be difficult. Is this because the erotic or sensual impulse of the writing is represented within the profane domicile of work? So that working in the law office, the fields, the stage agency, the school, the kitchen brings one in proximity to philosophy? In that case, Bataille’s hierarchic model–in which philosophy is aligned with profane (work) time and erotic time is aligned with sanctity–falters when it comes to the consideration of the aesthetic projects of women in which structures of time do not fall easily into a hierarchic mode. It is from such a perspective that I offer the following section from Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha:

Maud Martha was fighting with a chicken. The nasty, nasty mess. It had been give a bitter slit with the bread knife and the bread knife had been biting in that vomit-looking interior for almost five minutes without being able to detach certain resolute parts from their walls. The bread knife had it all to do, as Maud Martha had no intention of putting her hand in there. Another hack–another hack–STUFF! Splat in her eye. She leaped at the faucet.

She thought she had praise coming to her. She was doing this job with less stomach-curving than ever before. She thought of the times before the war, when there was more chickens than people wanting to buy them, and butchers were happy to clean them, and even cut them up. None of that now…Now meat was jewelry and she was practically out of Red Points. You were lucky to find a chicken. She had to be as brave as she could.

People do this! People could cut a chicken open, take out the mess, with bare hands or a bread knife, pour water in, as in a bag, pour water out, shake the corpse by neck or by legs, free the straggles of water. Could feel that insinuating slipping bone, survey that soft, that headless death. The fainthearted could do it. But if the chicken were a man!--cold man with no head or feet and with all the little feather–er, hairs to be pulled, and the intestines loosened and beginning to ooze out, and the gizzard yet to be grabbed and the stench beginning to rise! And yet the chicken was a sort of person, a respectable individual, with its own kind of dignity. The difference is in the knowing. What was unreal to you, you could deal with violently. If chickens were ever to be safe, people would have to live with them, and know them, see them loving their children, finishing the evening meal, arranging jealousy.

In her well-known essay, "‘The Darkened Eyes Restored’: Notes Toward a Literary History of Black Women," Mary Helen Washington recounts that when Gwendolyn Brooks received the Pullitzer prize, the event was resented.(30-31) Maud Martha, written three years later, was characterized by a reviewer as written by "a spunky and sophisticated Negro girl," who, they said, had a marvelous "ability to turn unhappiness and anger into a joke."(31)

A question is: Whose goal is it to usher anything into the canon? And how, as a writer to engage actively and publicly in literary practice without turning oneself over to false representations? I am by the way talking less about achieving public fame or notoriety than I am about fantasy structures of power that are silencing, that prevent writers for instance from addressing critically their own and other writers’ works. Women must be able to speak critically and analytically about each other’s and others’ (men’s, writers’ different from "herself," critics’, and theorists’) works or we will be misrecognized. However, if such writing about is about canon-formation, then the misrecognitions will persist along with an endless series of misnamings.

What I mean in the most simple sense here is that the writing about needs to attend carefully to difference, to awkwardness, to misfittings rather than to have as a primary goal the fitting of the "innovative" text into conventional categories. After all, the power of the "different" text lies in what it suggests about other ways of seeing and imagining writing. If one wants the implication of a vision to develop, then fitting the radical object into the square peg of patriarchal canon-making narratives is not only an inaccurate way of proceeding but one that reinforces values that the art object itself critiques. I do not mean that mediating language is not necessary for creating readings of and preserving writing but that reductive readings that are about norms and values the texts themselves reject or call into question can produce a kind of textual powerlessness.

So, how do "we" do this without falling into devotional terms asks Kathleen Fraser. In her well-known "Cyborg Manifesto," Donna Haraway proposes irreverance, blasphemy, and wit in the context of feminist political and cultural practices. The reflections and reflexivities that these terms imply suggest healthy antidotes to "the sacred" (and neutered) text as object of traditional literary canon-making.

There is sometimes a sad, confusing, ineffective anxiety about legitimacy that can be over-written. Does this anxiety have to do with the condition of being returned to silence? Returned to writing? If one is always only returning to writing (with other forms of work as discounted, discontinued), profane time is replaced only by sacred time and then the meaning of sacred time becomes chaos. Or, the withdrawal from public discussion that occurs because it is not possible to meet its terms, its pre-existing categories–those experiences that are either actually silencing or that makes one feel silenced–become identical to the desire for solitude. The erotic space of writing is then in part occupied by a negative reaction to public space. If not chaos, a knot.


A tangle of knots.

[Alice fascinated by the length of the mouse’s tail, watches it unfold as a series of "bends." Dimly, she hears him remark: "We know that the unconscious castration complex has the function of a knot.

"A knot!" said Alice, all ready to make herself useful, and looking anxiously about her. "Oh, do let me help to undo it."

"I shall do nothing of the sort," said the Mouse, getting up and walking away.

"I didn’t mean it," pleaded poor Alice. "But you’re so easily offended, you know!"

The Mouse only growled in reply.

And here is poor Alice on the Freudian couch…Alice, c’est moi?] [7]

When I use the word "woman" as in Women’s Studies, I am talking about a class of people who have a subordinated relationship to power. One of the conditions of this power in respect to literature is the concept of women’s voices being silenced. Particularly in the area of African American literary studies, there has been an examination of the process of suppression of the idea of women artists and the production of an expanding narrative of re-presentation of not only texts but the event of black feminine creativity.

[Contrary to what we might expect, black holes are full, not empty…The idea of a black hole as a process–as a progression that appears differently, or not at all, from various perspectives–seems a useful way of illustrating how I conceive of incommensurability, or variations on negation, as characteristic of black feminist creativity.] [8]

There is another problem of silence, of the Eros of writing. Writing by women working in "new forms" is difficult. It can appear with "variations on negation" for instance. Women of color, white women, working-class women have in common variations on a different relationship to power, and this makes "us" hard to read. Reading is conditioned by patriarchal teleological designs on texts. The writing then is incommensurate with ways in which reading is learned. I am not only talking about the privileging of transparency, coherence, wholeness, argumentation, but also of the relationship that women make to philosophical modes of discourse. Hence, it was very difficult for students in Women’s Studies to understand that when Acker or Retallack use the figure I/eye, they are not simply referencing Laura Mulvey’s construction of the male gaze in Visual and Other Pleasures but are writing about the visual in relationship to a non-stationary I/eye, not an oppressive eye. In other words, it is difficult for them to understand that the "other" has positive agency and is in fact producing these texts that construct new modes of thinking, seeing, and writing. The comfortable position for the reader is that of a critical reactivity. So the "patriarchal" conditioning of the "critical" reader (as opposed to the "passive" reader) is to put her in a position of reactivity. If one only reacts to a text based on prior knowledge, one cannot read it. Any feminist discourse can be conditioned to modes of patriarchal reading.

So, the concept of silence slips. It becomes being silenced by phallic signification. It becomes lack. Is this the same silence that the writer is returned within the intensity of writing? My answer is no. It is not the same silence. But one is conditioned to experience "being silenced" with the eroticism of writing poetry. Abjection, resentment, competitiveness, and envy rise from the confusion of the intensities of two different forms of subordination (e.g. the giving oneself over to the solitude of writing and social subordination, erasure, etc. within a hierarchic regime) both of which are subsumed in the same word. Or pair of words: silence, solitude. Where silence for women is thought of as oppression and solitude is a form of freedom.


(The other is not only other and this is where we get away from hierarchy. The other knows the law and can imitate the law and can sometimes be the law and something other than the law. It is in profane time, the time of work, which in the time of the other, is not categorically separate from eroticism. Yet, it excludes an oppressive sanctity, including the unlimited claims of knowledge which are visited on others and which demand one to give up one’s erotic situation for a sanctified neutrality.)

I wonder, and this is where I’m going to leave off writing now, if the mixing of discourses or the writing in different fields or genres (performative, oral, written, political, poetic, philosophical, anthropological), such as in the works of Zora Neale Hurston, Mina Loy, Suzan-Lori Parks, Leslie Scalapino, or Ann Lauterbach (can I place these writers side by side?), is related to a demand for recognition that does not desire sanctity as either 1) The Poet 2) The Realist 3) The Superwoman (I want to pretend these formulations are dead but they aren’t really) but insists on a relationship between the writing subject and the commonwealth that honors the potential power of all or any members of the commonwealth who have been assigned the position of alterity. If the other speaks and is speaking, the others can potentially speak as well. But there is I think a psychological dimension to be addressed as well. It may be that the poet/writer’s ability to make use of work such as philosophy (and skinning a chicken) allows her to mediate psychologically between the near-chaos of solitude in writing (which is also freedom) and the fear of non-recognition, misnaming, subordination, silencing, and erasure.

Works Cited

Acker, Kathy. Bodies of Work: Essays (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1997).

Bataille, George. "Sanctity, Eroticism, and Solitude" Eroticism. Trans. Mary Dalwood (London: Boyars, 1987).

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Maud Martha (Third World, 1953)

Burke, Carolyn. "Without Commas: Gertrude Stein and Mina Loy," Poetics Journal 4 (May 1984): 43-52.

Dahlen, Beverly. "Forbidden Knowledge." Poetics Journal 4 (May 1984): 3-19.

DuBois, Page. Sappho is Burning (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995).

Gomez-Pena. "Performing for the Media: The Cruci-fiction Project (1994)," The New World Border: Prophecies, Poems and Loqueras for the End of the Century (San Francisco: City Lights, 1996).

Haraway, Donna. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century" Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991).

Howe, Fanny. Rev. of Midwinter Day by Bernadette Mayer. American Book Review 6 (1984): 16.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989)

Scalapino, Leslie "War/Poverty/Writing" Poetics Journal 10 (June 1998): 65-73.

Wallace, Michelle. "Variations on Negation and the Heresy of Black Feminist Creativity," Reading Black, Reading Feminist Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Meridian, 1990) 52-67.

Washington, Mary Helen. "‘The Darkened Eyes Restored’: Notes Towards a Literary History of Black Women." Reading Black, Reading Feminist Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Meridian, 1990) 30-43.



1 Michel Foucault, introduction to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattariís Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

2 Carolyn Burke quoting Stein contrasting her to Loy whom she describes as living within the experience of sexual difference in her. "Without Commas: Gertrude Stein and Mina Loy," Poetics Journal 4 (1984): 49.

3 Regarding hysteria: at the Page Mothers conference, Lyn Hejinian remarked that hysteria is well and thriving in the twentieth century, and ought to be seen as a positive attribution, an appropriate and even constructive response to any number of impossible situations.

4 Fanny Howe, Rev. of Midwinter Day, American Book Review 6 (1984):16.

5 See Kathy Ackerís discussion of seeing ("I do not see, for there is no I to see") in "Seeing Gender," Bodies of Work 158-59.

6 Regarding misrecognition on the local level in the context of contemporary women writers, consider these analogies: Bob Perelmanís characterization of Rae Armantroutís poetry as anorexic, Herman Rapaportís ascription of "metastasis" in an otherwise eloquent reading of Leslie Scalapinoís Considering How Exaggerated Music Is, Stephen Paul Martinís application of the concept of the Great Mother to my mixed-genre text, Vice.

7 Beverly Dahlen, "Forbidden Knowledge," Poetics Journal 4 (1984):

8. Michele Wallace, "Variations on Negation and the Heresy of Black Feminist Creativity," Reading Black, Reading Feminist 54.

(back to top)

BIO: Carla Harryman is the author of ten book of prose, plays, poetry and essays including a novel, The Words: after Carl Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories and Jean-Paul Sartre (Berkeley: O Books, 1999) and a volulme of selected prose, There Never Was a Rose without a Thorn (San Francisco: City Lights, 1995).She teaches Creative Writing, Women's Studies, and Literature at Wayne State University.


table of contents