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Impertinent Voices: Subversive Strategies in Contemporary Women's Poetry.

One of the aggressive difficulties that confronts both students and practitioners of feminist literary theory concerns its extraordinary diversity. This diversity becomes dizzying when it is recognized that such a wide array of methodologies and intentions is generally seen to serve the single, broadly conceived goal of charting the genesis and development of "all those women's words telling their stories," as Liz Yorke writes in Impertinent Voices: Subversive Strategies in Contemporary Women's Poetry (9). As the sociohistorical research carried out by feminist scholars has contributed to our understanding of how women have lived their lives through the centuries, the theoretical implications of the many ways in which these lives ultimately find representation in the literature would seem to point to argumentative strategies of incomparable diversity, rendering even the most fundamental agreement on the important issues unobtainable. Comparing feminist critics to deconstructionists (who look to Derrida), to psychoanalytic critics (who concentrate on Freud or Lacan), or to Marxists (who begin with Das Kapital), Elaine Showalter has remarked that "feminist critics do not look to a Mother of Us All or a single system of thought to provide their fundamental ideas."(1) Stanley Fish has elaborated on this particular theoretical freedom, one that is often unavailable to the more codified methodologies:

feminism has flourished in the absence of a full-blown theory and there is no reason to think that the addition of one would make it more "systematic" than it now is. Indeed, it could well be that the "looseness" of feminist practice, its eclectic and even ramshackle character, is essential to its success, to its ability to intervene in situations linked only by the fact that in them women's interests are seen to be at stake.(2)

The broad brush of feminist critical practice derives primarily, of course, from the fact that it is gender based, and it is hard, if not impossible, to imagine a literary, social, or historical context in which its methods would not yield significant results. The forces of gendering operate everywhere around us in thoroughly diversified contexts, and a narrowly drawn feminist methodology, even if it received unanimous agreement from all of its practitioners, would certainly be unhelpfully restrictive.

One of the prominent investigations of feminist criticism over the last fifteen years has concerned the question of women's relation to language, a psycholinguistic concern that has become most closely associated with several contemporary French critics who have based their own work on the trinity of French criticism: Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida. Although each of these formidable talents has his distinctly separate interests, they all have been concerned to analyze, loosely speaking, the relation between language and reality, a concern traditional enough to locate them on the borders of what academic philosophers would recognize as classical epistemology. Feminist critics, Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva uppermost among them, have appropriated the work of their forebears in an attempt to delineate l'ecriture feminine, a way of writing "in the feminine" that has mounted a thoroughgoing interrogation of the syntactical, linguistic, metaphorical, and even metaphysical assumptions that support the powerful hegemony - epistemological in nature, it is often claimed - of Western narrative.

To put the question simply, is there a way of writing, a linguistic and perceptual system, that constructs what we might recognize as a woman's language? It would certainly be fair, perhaps even modest, to begin to answer this question by recognizing the widespread disagreement that has surrounded the entire notion of ecriture feminine. Theories designed to explain the fundamental structure of language through a recognition of gender differences must ultimately confront the fact that such theories imply, as I indicated above, the existence of a separate epistemology, one that resists the common and dominating features enshrined by a cognitive system that we have come to call the Western narrative. The evidence for such a resistive epistemology has largely been found in the various disruptions, silences, and encodings that have attempted to dismantle this hegemonic narrative. The "other" voice has not been silenced and is speaking even within the textual boundaries set by the discourse that would silence it. Initially, we have only to learn its language. Such a claim has characterized feminist thought for some time.

In its most simplistic form, the claim has attempted to distinguish between male and female thought, the former being labeled hierarchical, aggressive, and totalizing, while the latter is seen as hesitant, nourishing, and adaptable. Disagreements with this position have generally taken two tacks. One argues that all thought - male or female - is totalizing and that the imputed difference between these open and closed systems of thought amounts to nothing more than that these systems are going about the business of closure in different ways, but that they are finally closed all the same; the other response, impatient with those methods designed to scrutinize a text for its ideological content or its surface for signs of disruption, would situate the work within its cultural context and perform the essentially Marxist operation of inquiring into the production and distribution of women's writing. Both of these approaches - one of them linguistically oriented, the other historically oriented - have made contributions of inestimable value to the fields of psycholinguistics and cultural materialism.

The strong allegiance that the linguistically oriented feminists often share with Lacan might seem to indicate a clear sympathy toward the delineation of a feminized language, one that arises from an essentially female psychological structure. Yet there are other ways of pressing Lacan into service, as the critical literature so richly demonstrates, and Shari Benstock in Textualizing the Feminine: On the Limits of Genre begins her argument with a refreshing clarity that steers clear of the epistemological complications that often dismantle such projects with their unnecessary contradictions:

My argument is not that there is anything inherently "feminine" in the forms of rhetoric, grammar, and punctuation I discuss but rather that apostrophes, ellipses, footnotes, and certain epistolary forms, orthographical conventions, and alphabetic signifiers occupy a textual space of loss or oversight. Apparently escaping the law of representation, they are overlooked by interpretive procedures.

(xvii)

Benstock continues by reminding us that these unconventional signifiers mark for the French theorists the "vanishing point of meaning," and by combining this observation with Derrida's practice of focusing attention on those same textual elements that have traditionally been regarded as habitual and insignificant - "ancillary to structures of meaning," as she writes - Benstock is able to formulate the first problem of her inquiry: "The immediate problem is how the psyche textualizes the female body as the repressed ground of unconscious representations and how literary texts figure the female body to represent psychosexuality" (xvii-xviii). Lacan's superimposing of various linguistic structures onto the architecture of the psyche makes Benstock's book possible - as well as legions of others - and it is this particular superimposition that stands as one of the hallmarks of contemporary French theory.

The second, perhaps inevitable chapter concerns Kristeva's ideas about the ways in which linguistic patterns determine our concept of the materiality of the human body. The relation between psyche and body, Kristeva argues, is constituted by formative structures that are most clearly characterized as textual in nature. With Lacan and Kristeva in hand, Benstock opens the second section of her book with a reading of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. The chapter is titled "Apostrophizing the Feminine in Finnegans Wake," and her definition of the word "apostrophe" would embody all three of its fundamental senses: as an address to a person absent or dead; as the sign of the omission of one or more letters; and as the sign of the modern English possessive. These three senses are carefully traced through Benstock's reading of this monumental novel. It is often difficult to excerpt discrete portions of her argument, however, because the evidential material needed to understand the excerpt lies hidden in nuances and stylistic delicacies that have required a substantial amount of time to establish. But Benstock's comments on Issy's footnotes to the novel illustrate how effectively she has deployed both Derrida's ideas concerning those textual markers heretofore considered insignificant and Kristeva's theories concerning the textualization of the female body:

The footnotes form a narrative commentary of their own. Moreover, they give voice to feminine laughter, a jouissance of language, that splits open academic, phallogocentric discourse. They constitute an apostrophe to the domestic, to female sexuality, to "private" speech, to "illogic" and "chaotic" energies. . . . Evidence of Issy's knowledge can be found in the relation between the subject matter of the text and the form of the footnotes, the spelling of words containing clues to the father's presence, and echoes of a linguistic byplay indicating that the notes are double-voiced.

(79)

Benstock's analyses of Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas, H. D.'s Helen in Egypt, and Joyce's Ulysses, although they are characterized by varying forms of such ingenuity, common sense, and clarity, are equally perceptive concerning the relation each work has to Benstock's chosen theme. It is especially noteworthy as well that Benstock has concentrated on authors whose reputations - with the possible exception of H. D. - have not needed establishing, so that her readings of the works must be placed alongside those hefty critical traditions that have secured these writers their lofty places in the literature. Obscurity has certainly not, in these cases, served as Benstock's ally, and Textualizing the Feminine represents a substantial accomplishment, not only in furthering our understanding of these important texts, but also in our understanding of how rhetoric, grammar, and punctuation, while containing nothing inherently feminine, nonetheless serve to constitute the text of femininity.

One of the risks confronting all forms of literary criticism that seek to dispel the dominant hegemonies of the Western narrative concerns that of domestication. Various terms become so common, so heavily freighted with stable meaning, that their power to oppose and renovate is compromised to a large degree by their ubiquity alone. In the current critical vocabulary, "subversive" has become one of those terms. As one of the important adjectives in the title of Liz Yorke's book, then, the term serves as much as an indication of the book's inability to transcend traditional argumentative strategies as it does to indicate the unfulfilled desire that it do so. Much feminist criticism has rightly and understandably arrived with an urgency recorded in its intensely personal voice, one that eschews the so-called voice of unbiased judgment, but the presence of personal commitment does not license banality and obfuscation. In the following passage, Yorke is describing her own way of reading poetry:

I approach the poet's work with a loving attentiveness involving "the adoption of a state of ~active receptivity' in which the reader tries to ~hear' what the text is consciously and unconsciously saying." Helene Cixous stresses that this faithfulness to the other requires close, respectful reading, an openness and a willingness to work with a multiplicity of readings, and preparedness to adopt a whole range of approaches to the text. ~Learning to love the other' in this way may begin to bring us into community with each other.

(3-4)

Is it not disturbing to claim attentiveness - albeit a "loving" one - as a signal feature of one's reading habits? And here is Yorke on what women, amid their diversity, share: "what ~women' have in common is that we live and work and play and have sex in our (various) anatomically female bodies" (10). I agree.

But the problem with Yorke's argument lies more deeply embedded than the previous quotations might indicate. Although Yorke offers some helpful comments on the poetry of Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath, her conception of these writers' subversive qualities is discovered through a critical language that often seems to have been forged from one of the early how-to textbooks done by Brooks and Warren. Concerning Rich's poem "Frame," Yorke draws the conclusion that "if the focusing of the concerned attention - of poet and reader - is important, so too is the poet's discerning selection of words. It is not only who tells the tale, but also how the tale is told and what part the words themselves play in constructing the story" (31). Perspective? Literary style? Central to the New Critical doctrines of analysis, these concerns became part and parcel of the fetishization of the text, establishing it as an artifact that would bear the brunt of unimpassioned analysis, yielding to its trained reader a meaning unsullied by relativity and contingency. There is nothing inherently wrong, to my way of thinking, with a fetish, but such a traditional reading practice seems somewhat out of place in a book announcing early on that it will "make overt some of the poetic strategies that characterize this transgressive work of re-vision" (1).

Although Yorke claims to have negotiated productively the "difficult margin between French feminist theory and Anglo-American feminist criticism," her negotiations seem not to have prohibited her from arriving at conclusions that decades ago provided the starting point for much French theory. In her discussion of Plath's work, Yorke actually reminds us that 'it is a traditional part of the poet's role to work in language" (44), and that ~Plath's work points the way towards a feminist understanding of how destructive patriarchal mythic messages which pattern our language present themselves as the universal order, as the natural way to conceptualize reality" (45). That a poet works in language seems to me another incontrovertible statement. And certainly feminist inquiry first alerted us to the hegemonic presence of the patriarchal mythos that stands behind some our most fundamental modes of cognition, but that is old news concerning Plath's poetry, and the understanding of this oppressive structure is no longer restricted by the adjective "feminist." It is an understanding that interests all readers who would perceive the ways in which the human psyche has been patterned by the structures of our language. What seems most characteristic of Yorke's study is an eagerness to engage the French critics, particularly Cixous, Lacan, and Kristeva, and to deploy them in her construction of her own theory of "re-vision," but this laudable eagerness seems more often than not hindered by an unwillingness to engage these critics on their own terms. These terms, as all who have encountered them know, can become austere, obscure, and foreboding in the blink of an eye, but they are terms that descend to us from moments of unquestionable intellectual accomplishment and significance - a statement with which Yorke would obviously agree. But it is precisely the significance of these varied accomplishments that must be made clear when they are taken as the cornerstone of an argument's methodology. Whether we consider the body of feminist criticism and theory to be eclectic, as Fish claims, or ramshackle, as Fish also claims, it represents a critical movement whose ramshackle eclecticism has given voice to an envigoratingly vast array of perspectives. As new methods of inquiry become available, whether they come from a sociologist's fieldwork or from a theoretician's work in the study, the integrity of their original findings must be maintained if they are to become the groundwork for further conceptual development.

(1.) Elaine Showalter, ed., The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory (New York:: Pantheon, 1985) 4. (2.) Stanley Fish, Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (Durham: Duke UP, 1989) 23.
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Author:Burris, Sidney
Publication:Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1993
Words:2547
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