Through the myopic eyes of 'malestream' culture the figure of the lesbian, observes renee c. hoogland, 'merely haunts the edges of the field of vision' (p. 25). This ambitiously eclectic study, which draws upon film, literary, and psychoanalytic representations of lesbianism, moves its subject into view whilst resolutely withholding the corrective lens. Erased from power by popular culture and academy alike, the 'spectral' lesbian is a blind spot, a negative space of meaning in a hetero-patriarchal culture. To leave her marginalized is to deny her agency, while to bring her into fixed focus is to diminish her force. This is the paradox hoogland's 'practice of "symptomatic" lesbian reading' (p. 8) explores with an astute and playful eye.
Drawing upon the Hollywood film as the consummate popular text, hoogland provides compelling examinations of how patriarchal narratives deny the agency of female same-sex desire. Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct is readily exposed as an 'anxiety-ridden and violent male fantasy' (p. 29) where phantasmagoric visions of castration collide with the titillation of lesbian chic. In Roman Polanski's more complex and self-reflexive Bitter Moon, the controlling male narrative of sexual domination is shown to be broken by a lesbian act outside the camera's normalizing gaze. The deft footwork of hoogland's dry wit, refreshingly alive to the dark comedy of these male fantasies, ensures that the more unwieldy analyses of hetero-patriarchy nearly always punch their full weight. Steven Spielberg's Hollywood sanitizing of The Color Purple provides another puny sparring partner for such heavyweight lesbian reading. More telling is the analysis of the enforced heterosexualization of Celie and Shug that renders Alice Walker's original text difficult to lesbian interpretation. Reading against the grain of recent feminist criticism of Walker's limited social realism, hoogland argues that the novel is too fixed in history to provide the liberation of an unfettered lesbian fairy story.
By reversing the logic of these patriarchal attempts to confine lesbianism to the abjected subconscious of culture, hoogland considers the presence of same-sex desire in pre-liberation female narratives. A 'perverse' reading of The Bell Jar traces the kinks in the 'ostensibly straight narratives surfaces' (p. 70) of Plath's text through the multiple personalities of the adolescent Esther, whilst the narrative 'double focalization' (p. 93) of Elizabeth Bowen's Friends and Relations demonstrates similarly disruptive sexual and textual operations. This teasing out of a lesbian subtext in works traditionally claimed and constrained by the straight mind is hoogland's most fertile contribution to future lesbian studies.
Less fruitful is the vertiginous switch from detailed textual analysis to high psychoanalytical theory that marks an attempt to repoliticize lesbian sexuality within feminist critical practice. To state that the feminist closeting of lesbianism parallels the Freudian 'process of disavowal operative in fetishism' (p. 127) is suggestive yet rather bland after the earlier textual skirmishes. There, for example, Julia Kristeva is accused of an 'unwavering bias for male-authored texts' (p. 69), whilst Hermione Lee is portrayed as the prim protector of Elizabeth Bowen's moral reputation, reading her 'uncritically' in a way that 'reveals her own lesbophobia' (p. 99). Whatever the cultural battleground, the empowerment of the lesbian within feminist politics seems certain to be no bloodless coup.
So can the spectral figure of the lesbian cast light upon the lurid operations of modern culture? On the evidence of renee c. hoogland's illuminating study, a well-grounded practice of symptomatic lesbian reading will surely be no critical ignis fatuus.
<ADD> NICK KNEALE KING'S COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGE </ADD>
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 1999|
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