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The Feminist Difference: Literature, Psychoanalysis, Race, and Gender.

Barbara Johnson. The Feminist Difference: Literature, Psychoanalysis, Race, and Gender. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998. 215 pp. $22.00.

The Feminist Difference, by Barbara Johnson, is a collection of essays that invokes the titles of the earlier works of this esteemed feminist scholar--The Critical Difference and A World of Difference. In her most recent work, Johnson continues the investigation of the binary differences principally between male and female, white and black, hetero- and homosexuality, innocence and guilt, and prose and poetry. Her objective continues to be revealing the ways in which dominant ideologies repress complex "structures of self-difference" so as to perpetuate the reductive logic of binary distinctions. By focusing on the discourses of contemporary academic feminism, Johnson also wants to examine the differences among feminists and to use their multiple and often contradictory positions as a site for thinking productively about ambivalent views on key feminist positions.

The Feminist Difference is divided into three sections: (1) "Literary Differences: Psychoanalysis, Race, and Gender"; (2) "Gender and Poetry"; and (3) "The 'Voice' of the Author." Part one is probably most closely related to the topical interest of readers of African American Review because it focuses on African American literary texts. Johnson explains that this section evolved from her juxtaposing a psychoanalytic text with one written by a black American author: "Both of the texts are meant to be read as both 'literary' and 'theoretical,' dealing with both 'psychoanalysis' and 'race.'" The essays in the other two sections, she adds, "are built upon other kinds of pairings." All "the juxtapositions are meant to enable the text to become readable in new ways." These new readings are quite provocative, yet each seems curiously contained within its own arguments. As I will explain below, the shrewd new reading emanating from one set of texts seems not to inform the reading of a corresponding set in another se ction. What this pattern reveals is the intractable nature of the very social binaries that Johnson so aptly deconstructs.

The first essay, "Is Female to Male as Ground Is to Figure?" presents not only an interesting question but also a model for critiquing binaries by asking how the figure in the foreground is framed by the background. To distinguish between the figure and the ground, Johnson elaborates on two kinds of figures: cursively drawable ones, and recursive ones. [ldots] A cursively drawable figure is one whose ground is merely an accidental by-product of the drawing act [ldots] A recursive figure is one whose ground can be seen as a figure in its own right. [ldots] The "re" in "recursive" represents the fact that both foreground and background are cursively drawable--the figure is "twice-cursive"

Johnson uses this model to place figure and ground or literary work and interpretative strategy in a dialectic in which the strategy engages the text and the text critiques the limitations of the strategy.

African American literary texts and the discourses of psychoanalysis provide the first occasions of this cross-interrogation. Chapter two combines Heinz Kohut's work on narcissistic disorders and Nella Larsen's Quicksand (1928). Here, Johnson contends that Kohut's "'self-psychological' psychoanalytic perspective" provides perceptive insight for reading the complex inner life of Larsen's main character. Johnson convincingly argues that Quicksand's protagonist suffers from a narcissistic disorder that structures her personality. What's key in this new reading is the contention that the "narcissistic structure of the individual is also a social, economic, and political structure in the world." This is an extremely important revision of traditional psychoanalysis, which has tended to separate the development of the subject from any influence of its cultural environment.

In chapter three Johnson re-reads Richard Wright's Native Son by focusing on the scene in which Bigger writes the ransom note, thereby providing a gloss on Max's argument about murder as Bigger's single act of creation. Johnson convincingly argues that the police fail to read the black vernacular inscribed in the note, but when she turns to scenes of Wright himself writing aborted plots about women (the Indian maiden in Black Boy, Sarah of "The Long Black Song," and the novel mentioned in "How 'Bigger' Was Born" on "the status of women in American Society"), the argument takes a surprising turn. Johnson now asserts in her conclusion that "Wright consistently sees the black woman as the reader his writing must face." Exactly why Johnson insists that "the figure of the black woman as reader in his work is fundamental" is not clear. What's more she leaves unexplored the tragic consequences of this recurring confrontation to black women in Wright's fiction.

In chapter four, Johnson combines Toni Morrison's Sula and Freud's essay "The Uncanny" to explain the novel's demand that we recognize the political nature of aesthetic judgment, indeed the unstated political investments of literary scholarship in general. By questioning Kant's thesis that "the domain of the aesthetic [is] the domain of disinterestedness," Johnson dares to ask, "What is the nature of our pleasure in contemplating trauma or racial injustice or the destruction of the 'home' of the other?" Put another way, is scholarship a kind of voyeurism? Johnson's discussion of Sula allows her to make (some would contend repeat) the profound observation that "it is not a matter of choosing between politics and aesthetics but recognizing the profoundly political nature of the inescapability of the aesthetic within personal, political, and historical life."

The link between the African American context of part one on psychoanalysis, race, and gender, and part two on gender and poetry is a chapter that examines what Johnson calls "the more covert strategies of protest," namely those of "euphemism, understatement, and the passive voice" implicit in the poetry of James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen, and Phillis Wheatley. One of these protest strategies, what Johnson calls "excessive compliance," in the context of Wheatley's ostensible appropriation of Western racial hierarchies, also seems appropriate for understanding the tactical construction of the female persona of a nineteenth-century French poet--Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, discussed in chapter six. "The problem with Marceline Desbordes-Valmore," Johnson explains, "is not that the misogynists excluded her, but that they applauded her." Desbordes-Valmore's excessively compliant feminine persona resulted in her exclusion from Domna Stanton's recent anthology The Defiant Muse: French Feminist Poems for the Mi ddle Ages to the Present. Johnson rightly questions this editorial decision, but her argument could have achieved greater resonance if she had connected the discussion in the previous chapter about covert strategies of racial protest to this one on gendered protest.

Before addressing the last essay in part two on gender and poetry, I want to turn to the three essays of the book's closing section, "The 'Voice' of the Author." It begins with "Lesbian Spectacles: Reading Sula, Passing, Thelma and Louise, and The Accused." Johnson refers to the lesbian decoding in Barbara Smith's reading of Toni Morrison's Sula and Deborah McDowell's reading of Nella Larsen's Passing in order to analyze the female-female bonds in Thelma and Louise and The Accused. Johnson admits that, when she made her "own erotic unconscious participate in [her] reading process, far from guaranteeing some sort of radical or liberating breakthrough," she came "face to face with the political incorrectness of [her] own fantasy life." This is a brave confession, a praiseworthy model for our own explorations of the possibility of a discrepancy between our political ideals and unacknowledged libidinal attachments. In chapter nine, "The Alchemy of Style and Law," Johnson refers to Patricia Williams's Alchemy of Race and Rights to make visible a rhetorical style of neutrality and impersonality that routinely invalidates the social, economic, and political realities of difference. Placed against the preceding essay and the one about Desbordes-Valmore, I'd like to have had Johnson elaborate on how style also conceals unacknowledged desire, even contradictory positions--be they the writer's and/or the reader's. In the last essay, "The Postmodern in Feminism: A Response to Mary Joe Frug," Johnson invokes the multiplicity of the postmodern to acknowledge that the term woman designates no predetermined meaning. Thus, the differences associated with gender open up an uncharted region of contradictory viewpoints we must map.

While all of the essays explore ways of reading a broad array of difference, each essay evolves as a discrete unit. As a result, the often brilliant insights of one seldom inform similar situations in the other essays. Let me illustrate by referring to the distinction of reading "cursively" and "recursively" drawn figures in the opening chapter, outlined above, and returning to the discussion in chapter seven on gender and poetry, entitled "Muteness Envy."

This chapter begins with a discussion of Keats's "Grecian Urn," in which Johnson astutely concludes that "the ego ideal of the poetic voice would seem, then, to reside in the muteness of things." Johnson uses this muteness in its association with the idealization of the feminine to form the context for her discussion of the film The Piano. She argues that "The Piano would seem to be about telling, or not telling, the difference between women's violation and women's pleasure." The argument effaces the background of the movie: the gender conventions of the Maori culture, which we might also describe as mute inasmuch as they have no explicit representation. Nevertheless, the Maori appear like a dumb show in a poignant scene about Bluebeard and his murder of his wives. The ghastly incident is presented by having individual women stick their heads through openings in a suspended sheet, soiled with fake blood. The Maori men who sit in the back of the makeshift theater clearly understand the distinction between ple asure and violation, whether it's their own or a woman's. When they take for reality the theatrical performance of decapitated white women, the Maori men make judgments by disrupting the performance. They do not tolerate the theatrical performance of women's violation as entertainment. Put another way, the background of Maori peoples, their customs, and their land forms a recursive story in the film that Johnson does not recognize because she sees the film from a monological European perspective rather than a dialogical postcolonial one.

Let me be clear here. I do not fault Johnson for this instance of shortsightedness. Rather, I want to emphasize how difficult it is not to reimpose the very binaries we seek to escape. As Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser, among other renowned social theorists, have persistently maintained we cannot stand outside of the hegemonic ideology that interpolates us no matter how much we may wish to do so. It insinuates itself even into our best intentions. This does not mean that dominant hegemony is unchangeable. Only by daring to think beyond its well-established binary logic can we give birth to a more equitable network of belief structures. This is a difficult labor. Barbara Johnson's readings here and elsewhere are exemplary in their commitment to illuminating the hidden political investments of our scholarly endeavors.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Tate, Claudia
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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