The phallic construction of social reality and relationships in A. L. Kennedy's short stories.
Feminist theorists are faced with a fourfold task. We need to (1) articulate feminist viewpoints of/within the social worlds in which we live; (2) think about how we are affected by these worlds; (3) consider the ways in which how we think about them may be implicated in existing power/knowledge relationships; and (4) imagine ways in which these worlds ought to and can be transformed. (55)
This formulation of the task of feminist criticism provides a framework for assessing the transformational possibilities suggested in two short stories by the Scottish writer A. L. Kennedy: "Indelible Acts" from the collection with the same title, and "Rockaway and the Draw" from the collection Original Bliss. (1) The ways in which these stories address the reciprocal influence of social and personal realities invite a feminist analysis. As Sarah Dunnigan notes in a critical appraisal of Kennedy's longer fiction, however, this writer refuses "to be pinned down to any literary 'philosophy' or credo of gender" (144). This does not preclude critical engagement with Kennedy's writing from feminist perspectives. As Alison Lumsden points out, the themes of Kennedy's first short stories collection, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, announced the writer's lasting interests in "both physical and emotional parameters and the spaces available to women within patriarchal 'geographies'" (157). Kennedy's work after Night Geometry evinces a constant interest in the psychosocial construction of women's identities. This interest informs both "Rockaway and the Draw" and "Indelible Acts" in their focus on constructions of women's bodies as objects for satisfying masculine desires and on the resulting constructions of women's identities in disempowering configurations.
In her 1997 review of Original Bliss, Amanda Craig compares the status of A. L. Kennedy and Jeanette Winterson as contemporary women writers:
Jeanette Winterson and A. L. Kennedy are two of the leading writers of the new generation. Both are female and have won many prizes. One has gone from wild popularity as an outspoken lesbian to a chorus of (largely male) disapprobation; the other received the accolade of being a 1996 Booker judge, and benefits from the current exaltation of Scottish writing. A. L. Kennedy has been compared to Winterson, and both, as it happens, have written about passion and physics in their present books. (47)
Taking cue from Craig's review, one may argue that the narrative treatment of the relation between passion and physics in these writers' work offers a resolution to the conflict between sense and sensibility, inherited from the masculine literary canon. Rather than being preoccupied with asserting sense over sensibility, or sensibility over sense, Kennedy, like Winterson, focuses on feeling and sense-making as interdependent experiences. Thus, on the one hand, Kennedy's stories are concerned with the passion that drives one's fantasies of the self, posing the question: what sense is made in the fantasies that constitute the realm of sensibility or feeling? On the other hand, the stories are concerned with the physics of passion: how do these fantasies engender that which is sensed, sensibly or rationally, as the realness of reality?
The narrative treatment of these questions in the two stories analyzed here leads to an engagement with social myths conveyed in discourses derived from patriarchal traditions. These discourses define the realm of signification as a masculine domain and stake claims on women's personal, physiological, and social spaces. In engaging with these discourses, Kennedy's women narrators explore the ways in which masculine authority is disseminated and find possibilities of re-creating the ethos of the myths that draw on, and in turn legitimate, this authority. At the same time they explore the sources of their own narrative authority as women, that is, of their power as authors of the worlds in which they abide. In doing so, they challenge readers to consider how their own thinking about social worlds may be implicated in the power/knowledge relationships that sustain the legitimacy of these worlds. Exploring Kennedy's texts may help readers to envision new ways of relating to male-dominated social worlds, the strategies through which this relation can be transformed, and the implications of such transformations for subjective identity. For the purposes of this analysis, "social myth" is the narrative authority as women, that is, of their power as authors of the worlds in which they abide. In doing so, they challenge readers to consider how their own thinking about social worlds may be implicated in the power/knowledge relationships that sustain the legitimacy of these worlds. Exploring Kennedy's texts may help readers to envision new ways of relating to male-dominated social worlds, the strategies through which this relation can be transformed, and the implications of such transformations for subjective identity.
For the purposes of this analysis, "social myth" is the narrative expression of legitimate identities and socialization scenarios that have become normative through reiteration in various cultural media, engendering an ethos whence disciplining authority derives. My analysis calls for a reconsideration of naturalized perspectives, attitudes, and social rituals derived from narratives that, in their unchallenged reiteration of what counts as legitimate identities, consecrate myths whose power extends not only over realms of fantasies but also over social realms in which we enact those fantasies. It is with a view to the socially interactive dimension of narrative that I approach the texts analyzed in this essay: what are the effects of social myths on presentations of ourselves and of others in the social worlds in which we live?
Weaving together Kennedy's fictional universe with the social reality inhabited by readers, one becomes aware of the ways in which her writing deconstructs symbolic structures and the myths that structure the fantasies in which one gains a sense of self as social subject. "Indelible Acts" invites a transformation of one's relation to patriarchal authority through a narrative that asks readers to rethink the value of eroticism governed by social myths of phallic power; "Rockaway and the Draw" asks readers to rethink the value of eroticism through inviting reflection on those aspects of American West myths that, although pertaining to a different cultural framework, can be seen as colluding in the legitimation of phallic authority. That is to say that "Rockaway and the Draw" interprets social myths of the American West using, and simultaneously questioning, another social myth, that of phallic authority. "Rockaway and the Draw," in its representation of American West myths, deploys and exposes phallic authority as reinforced through psychoanalytic models derived from Lacanian and Freudian theory.
Thus, two social myths will be dealt with in the present analysis: one is a specific cultural myth, that of the American West; the other is the myth of phallic authority, constructed in Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis. The myth of phallic power underlies an analytic perspective, whereas the American West myths inform a narrative one. While the analytic perspective can be used to unpick myths of the American West, the reverse is not possible. Both perspectives, however, share versions of phallic authority. The myths of the American West pioneer who conquers and masters "virgin" territories engender the legitimacy of staking claims on material places (including women's bodies). The psychoanalytic myth of phallic authority stakes claims on the signification of these places.
The argument that Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis constitutes the basis of a social myth of phallic authority draws on psychoanalytic theory that questions Freudian and Lacanian frameworks and on Kennedy's short story "Indelible Acts," which, within their respective analytical and narrative frameworks, invite a similar reading response: namely, to challenge phallic power. This argument provides a context for examining how the challenge invited by "Indelible Acts" at the level of the reading response gives impetus to Kennedy's explicit flagging, in "Rockaway and the Draw," of ways in which myths of the American West are oppressive and can be renegotiated.
Kennedy's "Indelible Acts" offers the opportunity to examine the fantasies through which masculine identity is constituted, as this constitutive process is defined in Freud's and Lacan's psychoanalytic theory, as well as the ways in which this constitutive process affects how women fantasize their personal, physiological, and social space in heterosexual partnerships. The story explores how phallic symbols work in male-dominated gender regimes to legitimate the government of women's minds and bodies by men. "Rockaway and the Draw" shows how these mechanisms of domination are created through constructing masculine identity in stories that proclaim males' rights to stake claims on unknown territories. These territories can be imagined as physical spaces, for instance in pioneer stories of the American West. But these territories can also be imagined as the spaces of signification, yielding constraining understandings of the "I" that speaks. "Rockaway and the Draw" shows how phallic authority exercised to claim the physical public space extends over the realm of the symbolic, that is, over the realm in which those spaces are signified and made intelligible subjectively.
"Indelible Acts" is one of twelve stories in the collection with the same title that, according to one reviewer, explores "the complications of loving and the pains of estrangement" "with restrained wit and emotion" (Kirkus Reviews 631). According to Hadley Freeman's review for the Observer, the collection "provides the perfect structure for Kennedy's strengths. Each bite-sized tale is about love in all its forms--maternal, filial, sexual and thwarted" (17). As a story about compelling sexual entanglements, "Indelible Acts" can be read in reference to phallic power and the channeling of this power through sexual practices that proclaim masculine authority over the realm of the symbolic, which in Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis delimits the realm of socialization. The story represents, through its central male character, a man's attempt to assert control over this realm through using his female partner's body.
"Indelible Acts" focuses on the psycho-sexual bind that secures the woman narrator's love for a married man, Laurie. The story offers the woman's reflections on her relationship with Laurie, through which she attempts to express and understand her love for him. This effort is clouded by memories of Laurie's rather mechanical use of her body to fulfill his erotic fantasies. The story suggests that the woman's bind to Laurie had lasted through a balance of the physics and passion of sexuality, a balance Laurie eventually upset by demanding his partner's complete bodily subjection to his authority. "Indelible Acts" relates Laurie's attempt to control the workings of sexual physics and passion by disciplining the woman's body in order to create her as the subject of male-generated erotic fantasies, and it invites readers to reflect on the ways in which Laurie's attempt to subject his partner through psychosexual practices is a manifestation of male dominance in the larger structures and discourse networks that sustain an oppressive gender regime.
Laurie's mechanical control of the woman's body reveals that his erotic acts are acts of stamping the female body with the indelible mark of phallic symbolism. The climax of "Indelible Acts" is a scene in which Laurie demands his partner use a phallic implement. Laurie needs his partner's body to construct his identity as virile male and to legitimate his possession of phallic power. In this fantasy, to use Gayle Rubin's words, the woman is not allowed to posses the phallus, swhich "only passes through her" (192); however, "She can 'get' the phallus--in intercourse, or as a child--but only as a gift from a man. She never gets to give it away" (194-95). Laurie's fantasy that mirrors the phallus in the woman's body is a narcissistic act of taking possession of that body as one's own in the name of the phallus. "Indelible Acts" suggests that this fantasy of possession is destroyed by the very mechanics whereby it functions. In order to analyze this scene we need to examine in more detail aspects of Judith Butler's critique of Freudian and Lacanian theories of the phallus.
Butler's argument focuses on the Lacanian conception, derived from Freudian psychoanalysis, that the body is perceived as disconnected parts until it is constructed as having an integrated morphology in the mirror stage. In order to construct the body totality, Lacan and Freud argue, the infant must have prior psychic experience of individual body parts; these experiences of owning a specific body part help the infant to project a sense of owning an integral body when this body is revealed as the locus of the "I." As Butler explains, both Freud and Lacan privilege the experience of owning a penis by placing it as the origin of the projections that allow eventually the perception of one's body as whole. Butler shows that both Freud and Lacan seek to erase this act of privileging (Butler 57-91; Freud 67-104; Lacan, "Mirror" 3-9; Lacan, Seminar 161-230).
Butler argues that the symbolic power of the phallus is legitimated in a process of overcoming the body part status of the penis "phantasmatically and synecdochally ... through the inauguration" of the phallus as "the privileged signifier" (80). According to Butler, "although Lacan explicitly denounces the possibility that the phallus is a body part or an imaginary effect, that repudiation" can be read "as constitutive of the very symbolic status he confers on the phallus" (73). In the terms of Butler's argument, "the phallus must negate the penis in order to symbolize and signify in its privileged way" (84).(2) Kennedy's "Indelible Acts" brings to the fore precisely this connection between men's possession of the penis and their disavowed desire to see it transfigured in the phallus as a symbol of power. Laurie reacts with violence when phallic power appears to be relinquished from its association with the penis. The investment of power in the phallic symbol takes its toll when Laurie realizes that the phallic implement he requires his lover to use is a better referent for phallic power than his penis. The woman describes Laurie's reaction thus:
My implement was longer, fatter--unmistakably larger than his.
Which should have been of no significance to him. At least a couple of inches were just there for grip, they weren't a requirement, they didn't establish a level of need.
He turned it in his hands like a condensed adultery.
"Fuck." ("Indelible Acts" 105)
We may use Butler's assessment of Lacanian theory to interpret this passage. For Laurie, the ultimate proof that masculine identity guarantees his control of his partner is that the woman accepts the power of the phallus in her body. Laurie fantasizes that the phallus is in his possession on account of the association between phallus and penis. But the woman's submission to the abstract phallus that she must demonstrate to Laurie by using the phallic implement triggers a comparison between the phallus and the penis that threatens to make visible the possibility that phallic power is not the apanage of males.
In her critique of the Lacanian theory of the phallus, Butler argues that the phallus as signifier "can come to signify in excess of its structurally mandated position" (90). This is precisely what happens when Laurie hands over the phallic implement to his partner. The phallus is made to signify in a position of power that, it now dawns on Laurie, exceeds its "proper" association with the penis; the necessity of this association is thus contested. Kennedy's story refers to a situation that can be searched for clues to deconstructing the patriarchal authority of the symbolic. Laurie's act can perhaps be best analyzed using Elizabeth Grosz's argument that man:
desires his "possession" of the phallus be affirmed through the woman's desire for his penis, which is (symbolically) detachable from him and capable of being "given" to her. She desires access to the phallus he "owns." Ironically, sexual relations problematize the very link between penis and phallus that she strives to affirm. Sexual intercourse is both the affirmation of his possession of the phallus and a reminder of the possibility of castration. For a moment at least, he fills the woman's "lack" and at that moment becomes the site of lack himself. (134-35)
Through Grosz's insight, we understand why, for Laurie, his partner suddenly appears threatening. The perception of threat is rooted in masculine fears of losing control over phallic power, which may be seen as a fear of castration, as Grosz suggests. This threat perpetuates an indelible violence made inevitable by the masculine desire to live up to the excess of meaning with which the penis is invested via the phallus. Laurie sees his partner's affair with phallic power as adulterous, a deception that requires disciplining her body. The story suggests that this disciplining can easily take the form of physical abuse ("Indelible Acts" 105).
After Laurie realizes that the phallic implement is a better referent for phallic power than his penis and registers his partner's "adulterous" affair with the power it symbolizes, the narrator of "Indelible Acts" tells us:
And I do remember, absolutely clearly, the moment when the pain of his being there exceeded the pain of his having to leave me be.
Laurie and I, we don't discuss that night: it's our other secret. We don't tell.
But I find, more and more, that I write out what happened, what happens, in letters I never post--letters to a wife I do not know. Although we must have a few things in common, that's what I'd suppose. We must both look at him, walking in sunlight, and find him beautiful. (105)
The violence through which Laurie appropriates his partner's body cannot be discussed without challenging the privileges of phallic power upon which heterosexual partnerships are founded, a challenge that involves facing social pressure, isolation, and the imposition of silence: that is why Laurie's partner hesitates to relate her story, while intuiting the common ground she and Laurie's wife share.
The symbolical transformation of the penis into a detachable organ and its abstraction and objectification as the phallus leads to the objectification of women's bodies. Furthermore, the objectification of the phallus and of the field in which its power is authorized, women's bodies, permits the extension of this power over other kinds of objectified bodies. For instance, colonized territories have been feminized in Western patriarchal cultures, being seen as falling under phallic authority. In this case a stand-in for the phallus becomes a "weapon of invasion and destruction," to use Jane Caputi's words (204). (3) Such a stand-in can be discerned in the American West ethos of staking claims on territories fantasized as "virgin." The violence that accompanied the staking of claims in the American West can be seen as based on the "rights" accorded through the legitimation of phallic power: the stake that claims "virgin" territories fulfils a function that may be not so different from that fulfilled by the phallic implement through which Laurie claims authority over the body of his partner in "Indelible Acts." "Rockaway and the Draw" suggests a rapport between stories depicting locales of the American West and phallic power that transforms sexual encounters into sites for articulating a gender regime of masculine dominance. Through the investment of phallic power in these stories, the male is constructed as the agent who, in conferring the name, also appropriates the place (geographical or the body) he names.
Helene Cixous's critical examination of phallic power in "The Laugh of the Medusa" draws parallels between the ethos of male-generated psychoanalysis and that of the male explorer:
Men still have everything to say about their sexuality, and everything to write. For what they have said so far, for the most part, stems from the opposition activity/passivity from the power relation between a fantasized obligatory virility meant to invade, to colonize, and the consequential phantasm of woman as a "dark continent" to penetrate and to "pacify." (247)
Although theorized in a historical period that followed after the conquest of the American West, the concept of phallic power as a privilege of men can be traced to a source of masculine authority in older views of woman as nature to be tamed, shaped, and subdued by men, as Cixous points out. The main character in "Rockaway and the Draw," Suzanne, sees the realm of her fantasies and the realm of her body as territories her partner has annexed and describes these perceptions using elements of the American West ethos.
"Rockaway and the Draw" relates ordinary events in the life of Suzanne, a British woman living in the United States who finds herself caught in a stifling love affair with Ben, an American. The time span covered by the narrative is of approximately twenty-four hours, during which Suzanne and Ben go to a party, drive back home, make love, and the next morning go for a walk passing through Grand Central Station. The story focuses on the changing awareness of Suzanne, who begins to realize how trapped she is in her relationship with Ben and devises ways of defining her identity that, we infer, empower her to eventually leave him. In defining a more empowering subjective identity, Suzanne draws on elements of the ethos of the American West, which is signposted throughout the story. At the party, in order to deflect one of Ben's friend's attempts to dominate her, Suzanne
had chosen a loose silk Indian-style trouser-suit. Indian from India, not Native American. Had Suzanne dressed in the manner of a Native American, Rochelle would have offered her blankets and beads. That would have been her best appropriate gesture. As a British citizen in the costume of a former British colony, Suzanne knew she still presented a tricky choice between a welcoming martini and a Wampum trade. (Kennedy, "Rockaway" 6-7)
Later on we learn that in order to appease Rochelle, Ben will offer her "some Lakota grave-goods" (9). When at Grand Central Station, Suzanne finds that "the whole place was a licking and breathing and hauling Westward compulsion. The indicator board alone could make her long for covered wagons" (16). Perusing the locality names on the board, Suzanne is fascinated by "the best-sounding place in America ... Far Rockaway" (16). Although, as the narrator notes, Far Rockaway is not far from the Grand Central Station (it is a neighborhood in Queens, New York), the name captures Suzanne's imagination through its resonances. In the end, in her imagination, the name will refer to two superimposed semantic fields: one is the place of social constraints that Suzanne experiences in New York as Ben's partner; the other is that place as reconstructed in Suzanne's fantasizing, a place relocated to the American West in which she challenges the constraining patterns of her social life.
The subtext constituted of elements of American West fantasies underpins Suzanne's negotiation of her identity as Ben's lover, culminating in a fantasy of a duel between them that also provides the ground for reflections on the power of authorship over texts that define subjective position. The weapons in the duel Suzanne fantasizes are pencils, and "to draw" refers not only to drawing pistols but also to drawing the contours of one's social identity through narrating oneself. On one occasion, rejecting Ben's patronizing and overprotective attitude towards her, Suzanne thinks, "Quick on the draw. In the context of pencils rather than pistols, this could still be a considerable threat," and, towards the end of the story, "Vacation in Far Rockaway. Alone. Come back with a pencil. Bang. Bang" (17-18). Thus, the events related in the story are consistently contextualized with elements of the American West ethos, and it is by using some of these elements that Suzanne eventually weaves a more empowering identity. In doing so, she undermines the masculine authority that the ethos conveys.
"Rockaway and the Draw," however, is clearly not about the historical American West. The images of the West that we glimpse from the story do not add up sufficient information to help us reconstruct a clear picture of the American Frontier. Instead, the story can be read as focusing on masculine authority as it is manifested in relationships sustained through male-generated fantasies of female lovers and as drawing attention to the fact that the same authority is manifested in fantasies about exploration, pacification, and claim staking in the American West. Although hinting that such fantasies have governed the actions of the pioneers, it is the West of popular culture that the narrator evokes rather than the actual history of the westward expansion. At one point, Ben is compared to a person in a strip cartoon of the narrator's "own illustration" ("Rockaway" 10).
In her review for the Spectator, Teresa Waugh finds that all the stories of Original Bliss evince an ethereal sense of setting and character identity:
You're not always sure where you are--or why you're there; there is even an unreal quality about the characters themselves, slightly drawn as they are, and with no indication of where they come from and little of what shaped them. They appear at times to be floating in space, somewhere just out of our reach. Yet that is perhaps exactly as we should perceive others, rather than having the temerity to suppose that we can define them precisely. (35)
Waugh's assessment seems especially appropriate to describe "Rockaway and the Draw." To borrow Waugh's words, there is an unreal quality about the main character of the story, Suzanne, whom we often find in spatial and temporal realms that cannot be claimed as her reality. The realities she wanders into seem just out of reach, not only for the reader who cannot draw their definitive contours, rocked away as we are from ontological certainty, but also for Suzanne herself. In these realities, Suzanne perceives herself as a misfit, finding it difficult to claim room of her own. On the other hand, as she begins to define her identity through appropriating fantasies derived from the ethos of the American West, Suzanne finds the temerity required for precise definition, hitherto presented as the apanage of males.
Suzanne describes having sex with Ben thus:
In perhaps half an hour's time, he would lick her wrists and suck at her earlobes and then quite systematically take her apart, shake out the beat he wanted and then bolt her back into sleep. While he performed their mutually agreeable overhaul, she would find herself holding him and being once again surprised that she could be so intensely loving with a man who was so little more than mechanical. ("Rockaway" 10)
It is suggested that Suzanne's body is given to her anew, that it is in some sense repaired, renovated, or revised. According to Cristie March, "their sexual activity ... reduces her to a machine, at least in her own mind" (139), and this mechanical aspect of their eroticism is similar to that evoked in "Indelible Acts." Agency belongs exclusively to Ben. While "he performed," Suzanne "would find herself" responding, as if enchanted. In this reiterated reconstitution of Suzanne's body, its rhythms are attuned to catch up with "the beat" Ben wanted so that, we infer, once her body's presumed dysfunctionalities are fixed, Suzanne finds herself "once again" intensely loving him. Thus, it seems, Ben's overhaul of Suzanne's body, its ordering and bringing into shape, also implies an ordering and shaping of Suzanne's mind: it is shown as constitutive of Suzanne's feeling of intense love. Suzanne's subjective perception of her eroticism, however, accommodates contradictory feelings. She is surprised at herself for loving Ben in spite of his being "little more than mechanical." Suzanne's surprise gradually leads to an opening up of her identity for self-exploration as she begins to examine how her identity is constituted in relation to Ben.
Suzanne's exploration of her psychosexual response to Ben's mechanical appropriation of her body leads her to an exploration of the ways in which myths of the American West engender men's authority to appropriate the body of nature. In those myths, the act of staking a claim on the body of nature is also an act of naming the place and of taking the place in one's name. Thus, the authority engendered by those myths extends not only over the realm of nature, but also over the realm of signification. Suzanne intuits that Ben's power to enthrall her can be traced to a source in cultural memory that privileges masculine authority and suppresses possibilities of constructing the subject of action as feminine, affecting how women fantasize their identity. "Rockaway and the Draw" examines the metaphors used in discourses derived from American West myths in order to see how those metaphors govern the ways in which women fantasize their identity and, thus, the ways in which they define their social personae.
To use Flax's words in this context, the story acknowledges that "within contemporary Western societies gender relations have been ones of domination" and seeks "to recover and explore the aspects of social relations that have been suppressed, unarticulated, or denied within dominant (male) viewpoints" (55). Flax argues that feminist critics "need to recover and write the stories of women and [their] activities into the accounts and stories that cultures tell about themselves" (55). "Rockaway and the Draw" offers a vision of how such exploration and recuperation of authority in the symbolic realm of culture can take place, with a special focus on fantasies derived from the ethos of American West pioneers.
In "Rockaway and the Draw," Ben's fantasy of Suzanne's body re-creates it as a place he has appropriated: "that perfectly snug and moist little space he'd made for himself inside her" (10).4 Eventually, Suzanne begins to realize that Ben's understanding of her body may have been ordered and shaped by a fantasy derived from discourses of the American West:
At other times and in another country, that space had been her cunt. Ben called it his beaver. She supposed beaver was a nicer word than cunt. Ben's beaver. She didn't mind it being a beaver, she only found it odd that it wasn't hers. Ben's own genitals were quite attractive, but nothing on which she would wish to stake a claim. (10-11)
Alison Lumsden comments that the passage reminds us that "sexuality may also be shaped, or appropriated, by the language which we choose or have imposed upon us" (160). The passage suggests that Ben makes sense of Suzanne's body through a fantasy of appropriation that evokes the (cultural) mapping of wild territories by pioneers. Suzanne's body is spatialized as a territory on which Ben would "stake a claim"--a common phrase in the language of pioneers and settlers. Suzanne's body becomes a locale where the kind of appropriation that is made legitimate with American West myths can be performed. The myths are thus used to both order and shape Ben's (narrative) presentation of Suzanne to himself and to others (including to herself) and to distort and falsify Suzanne's reality. The deictic force of discourses derived from the myths structures Suzanne's social locale as lover by instituting relationships of correspondence between place (Suzanne's body, the Wild West) and event (sexual intercourse, "staking a claim") that have social value. During the couple's outdoor forays Suzanne begins to perceive reality as if it gravitated around Ben, as if the whole body of nature consented, like her body, to Ben's staking claim on it ("Rockaway" 13-14). In this world "peppered with docile bodies," Suzanne feels out of place, an early indication of her dissatisfaction with the identity she had acquired by consenting to its construction through Ben's fantasies ("Rockaway" 14). The representation of the imagery and ethos associated with staking a claim structures differently Ben's and Suzanne's sexuality: in order to grant Ben the power to stake a claim through his sexual "overhaul" of Suzanne's body, the latter must be defined as a territory awaiting colonization and reform.
In private, Suzanne fantasizes herself as a lonely woman living at a gas station, a woman who has nowhere to go. The landscape of her fantasy, a desert, again suggests the topography of the American West, even though Suzanne's fantasy is of a different period from Ben's pioneer fantasy, mixing elements of the Road Trip and Western genres. Suzanne seems to have internalized elements of the American West imagery, using them as means to fantasize her identity. But her fantasies begin to generate subversive undercurrents. At first, these are felt intuitively, but eventually they reorganize the significance of her memories and eventually surface to produce an alternative identity. Suzanne gradually creates opportunities to confront the mythologies that sanction the stories through which she had been hitherto compelled to present herself to herself and to others. She uses the male-generated discursive positions of the American West stories to work out a competing version of these stories. Suzanne begins to envision herself as a pioneer:
A young woman shimmers up out of a desert full of hungry reptiles and survivalists--a place of bad premonitions and un-American, unaccidental deaths. I see her as a kind of pioneer: a fine example, walking through miles of open, panting white with only her smile and her determination to sustain her. ("Rockaway" 11)
The pioneer woman in Suzanne's dream meets a man at the gas station who has something about him that "slows her, stems her progress, until she discovers that, quite without warning, she has started to live at the Rockaway gas station, to live with the man. As a couple, they are quite unsuited, but something here keeps them together, fixed" (11). From here on, Suzanne begins to re-appropriate agency and authority in the space of signification of American West pioneer discourses. Via imagery derived from popular culture fantasies of the West, but inhabiting this time the position of the pioneer, hitherto reserved for Ben, Suzanne realizes that, by comparison to the life of a pioneer, her life had been stale. Thus, "Rockaway and the Draw" recognizes the power of social myths to shape the fantasy of the self through which identity is gained. Suzanne, however, manages to re-create her identity by working creatively with the scripts of the American pioneer discourses, with the fantasies they engender, and with the language in which these fantasies are expressed.
Having said that, one should not neglect the surreptitious effects of reclaiming metaphors derived from pioneer narratives as ones enabling self-realization. Exploiting the power lines that pioneer discourse offers can lead to legitimating the violence of conquest and colonization that accompanied American westward expansion including, as Andrea Smith has shown, gender violence "as a tool of racism and colonialism" (1). The American West was never an empty space to be civilized by intrepid explorers, as the conquerors often fantasized it. Kennedy's narrator, however, does not legitimate such oppressive constructions of the American West, even though she uses their power lines to her advantage. Suzanne's fantasized Wild West is "a place of bad premonitions and un-American, unaccidental deaths." These words, read in conjunction with Suzanne's ironic criticism of Ben's friend's interest in Native Indian artifacts discussed earlier in this paper, indicate an awareness of the injustices of colonization. Furthermore, the kind of pioneer Suzanne fantasizes herself to be is a survivalist, not a conqueror. Her tale is often untold, barely "surviving" in the ethos of the American West hero. It is the landscape of this tale that Suzanne, as a pioneer, wishes to explore in order to find opportunities of creating a more empowering subjective identity for herself.
One of Dunnigan's conclusions to her analysis of several of Kennedy's texts is that "her work articulates verbal and psychological thresholds between disclosure and revelation, and the trope of memory--the immanence of the past within present lives--is a constant" (154). Although Dunnigan's analysis does not include "Indelible Acts" and "Rockaway and the Draw," her insight can be applied to these texts as well. In their concerns with the role of stories and the power conveyed through language, and their effects in socialization, Kennedy's texts engage with issues of cultural memory, providing analyses of the composite layers of personal and publicly shared memories. The latter preserve social myths transmitted through a network of dominant discourses that include literary, oral, and popular culture traditions, but also science traditions such as psychoanalysis. Although Kennedy's texts do not take issue with psychoanalysis in a direct manner, her texts register the disciplining effects of psychoanalytical myths of masculine authority and the intuition of their connection with other social myths in the cultural network that legitimates patriarchal gender regimes. The bearing of such social myths on women's socialization via personal and cultural memory is explored in "Rockaway and the Draw" with a focus on the ways in which memory structures the identity of the main protagonist, Suzanne.
Suzanne's fantasy world accommodates memories of the past in the reiteration of which she articulates a voice that determines a new stance in her relationship with Ben. As Suzanne projects her sense of isolation as Ben's lover into her imaginary relationship with the lone man at the gas station, she becomes aware of the missed opportunities in the past lives of women in her family. Remembering the deafness and dumbness of her grandmother's husband, and how he died calmly, her inner voice articulates the past unto the present thus: "If the young woman caught in Rockaway has repeating dreams of blood and murder she might wake up one sudden morning and long to ask the man beside her how calmly he would die" ("Rockaway" 12). Suzanne's initial troubled acceptance of her passive role as lover changes gradually into a challenging stance, as she now sees that it is Ben's "deafness" that "slows her, stems her progress" (11). In "dreams of blood and murder," Suzanne fantasizes a violent breaking of a reiterative chain that, in various settings, condemns women to social isolation as men's partners: when she conceives the possibility of asking the man beside her how calmly he would die, Suzanne defines a subjective position that allows her to take initiative in provoking the ending of "deafening" relationships, a position her grandmother couldn't find.
With these considerations in mind we may take a closer look at Suzanne's fantasy derived from popular culture myths of the American West. Indeed, Suzanne's subjectivity is constructed in the scripting of imaginary scenarios that repeat conventional patterns of stories derived from these myths. Yet the scenarios she develops also depart from these patterns as, through them, she begins to re-evaluate her situation in relation to both past and present. As she struggles to rearticulate her experience she comes against the power of the symbolic, compelling us to explore to what extent this is the Lacanian symbolic dominated by the imagery associated with phallic power. While counting through the collection of "pointless goods" her partner had gathered, the woman in Suzanne's dream comes across "unexplained and oddly enticing little knives" (11). The knives as phallic symbols are in Suzanne's fantasy "unexplained," which suggests that their symbolic power can be questioned. Her perception of the knives as "oddly enticing" echoes Suzanne's puzzlement at the beginning of the story where she wonders how she can be intensely loving with a partner who is little more than mechanical. For Suzanne, a sexuality developed and performed through the myth of phallic power is odd and unexplained even though enticing.
The woman in Suzanne's fantasy then "finds a matchbox full of milk teeth, an old diary and half a dozen yellow pencils, nicely sharp" (11). The mentioning of pencils in context with "enticing little knives" draws attention to the association between the symbolic as a realm of phallic power and the act of writing, in which is exercised the power of signification. The mentioning of pencils also evokes the beginning of the story, where Suzanne's inner voice ponders, "You can make someone deaf with a pencil. Just put it in their ear and shove" (3).
Remembering how in Suzanne's fantasy the various myths scripting the social roles of wife and lover render women inaudible and invisible (their male partners are shown as deaf and blind), we realize that, in registering the possibility that "you can make someone deaf with a pencil," the narrator entices readers to think that it is through control over the shaping and ordering power of writing that such deafness and blindness are inflicted. This shaping and ordering comes to be seen as associated with a range of symbolic acts that consecrate the realm of social experience as a realm of phallic power: as the realm where one stakes a claim on women's bodies in the same way as staking a territorial claim, because one can stake a claim with stories written nicely with sharp pencils that are a bit like oddly enticing little knives. They are pencils that carve and shape, engrave and sculpt reality, pencils capable of committing the violence of deafening, of stopping voices from being heard. In this context, the mentioning of "an old diary" anticipates Suzanne's incursion into the past. The memory of her grandmother and of her husband who died calmly is contextualized in reference to Suzanne's own present. But the narrative of Suzanne's fantasy breaks the citational chain whereby "deafness and blindness" make possible the serenity of masculine dominance: the woman in the fantasy "might wake up one sudden morning and long to ask the man beside her how calmly he would die." The passage immediately following the narration of this fantasy shows Suzanne waking up to her own reality as Ben's partner. The first sentence of this passage suggests that this is still a reality dominated by Ben: "Ben woke Suzanne and then woke his beaver" hints at his control over her mind and body. Suzanne "struggled slightly against his chest, still dreaming of bleached bones and dust" (12). This scene of waking up marks the entering of the woman of Suzanne's fantasy, come from the West of "bleached bones and dust," into Suzanne's own life story: Suzanne's slight struggle against Ben's physical presence anticipates that the struggle of the pioneer woman from the fantasy will become Suzanne's own.
Suzanne develops an alternative vision of her social identity in her fantasy through using the image of the woman trapped within the signification space of stories about women's place in society:
In a desert place called Rockaway, the young woman is trapped by the heat. It is plain that she can never leave the man or the gas station unless something very terrible happens first. She is given free food and lodging in return for her work, but there is hardly any work to do. Her wages are subsequently very small. As each night swoops in below zero and shatters rocks, the young woman owes the gas station man more money. There is something unjust about this, something that tries her determination and sharpens her smile. (13)
In the language of myth that writes her, Suzanne finds elements that can help her reconstruct an empowering social posture. She sees the determination of survival engendered with American West discourses as a force she can appropriate:
Pioneering and migrant hardships--forces which nourish a need for self-defence--have shaped the American character in both lovely and ugly ways. I am an immigrant. My hardships are negligible, but I may still learn to develop an interest in certain forms of personal protection. I can become a survivalist. (17)
The fantasy through which Suzanne appropriates pioneer identity seeps into her perception of social identity. This allows Suzanne to conceive the possibility of materializing her fantasy as a challenge to Ben's claims on her psychological and physical reality:
"Ben, I was wondering ... Have you ever been in a desert? Some wherewith sand and lonely highways and motels here and there, maybe gas stations."
"Gas stations? ... No ... Why? Would you like to see a desert? Vacation out there?"
Vacation in Far Rockaway. Alone. Come back with a pencil. Bang. Bang. (18)
Suzanne's challenge involves a rewriting of stories that implies her appropriation of signification power, a duel in which the contesting actors wield pencils and the stake is gaining agency in deciding how to present oneself to oneself and to others.
In "Rockaway and the Draw," the unmasking of the explanatory power of stories that compound social myths of women's role in heterosexual relationships is bound with unmasking the workings of symbolic phallic power. The story triggers reflections on the uses of fantasies, of fiction, as tools for steering social reality. Here, as well as in other stories in different ways, Kennedy offers women characters who take an active role in the process of their subjectivity construction because they become aware of various mythologies nestled in the psychological experience of signification and socialization.
In "Star Dust," from Night Geometry, the narrator warns against the iterative force of memory that may shape one's imagination: "You have to be very careful when you imagine and you're alone. Some people I've seen have locked themselves up in their heads and swallowed the key" (86). Rather than locking herself up into a fantasy generated through social myths that construct women as submissive wives and lovers, the narrator prefers a kind of discourse that allows her to participate in the story it tells by (co)authoring it instead of letting herself be performed by it. She controls the "exposure times and depths of field", how reality "happens" and how she can participate in it; because of that she finds narrative attractive rather than oppressive: "I love these words. These words are lovely. They are happening now, they are young words and, because I understand them, part of me can still be happening now and young." (83). Sarah Dunnigan connects the assertion of love for words in this story with a "sensuality of the word" that is always present in Kennedy's texts (144). Such loving awareness of the power of words, Kennedy's work suggests, creates opportunities for the appropriation of the means to shape a story, offering possibilities of deconstructing the mold of social myth that shapes women's identity and personal space.
Dunnigan argues that "most of Kennedy's fictions construct their own metafictions or meta-narratives" through "artistic formalism" and through a process "by which the act of writing is deconstructed by Kennedy's protagonists" (148). Dunnigan's analysis can be expanded in the framework of critiques of psychoanalytic theories that highlight the ways in which the formalism of discourses and writing is harnessed to signification and textual practices that privilege masculine authority (understood as both power and authorship of dominant narratives). The psychoanalytic dimension of an analysis of Kennedy's artistic formalism and deconstructive techniques, through which she revises hitherto naturalized metafictions and meta-narratives, allows us to regard Kennedy's texts as reclaiming authority (i.e. power and authorship) for women.
At the same time, such an analysis allows us to reflect on psychoanalytic theory as a meta-narrative whose explanatory power authorizes the view of the realm of signification as a domain of masculine authority, reflecting patriarchal social practices that underpin oppressive heterosexual partnerships.(5) Such practices are corroborated through stories (such as those derived from male-generated myths about the American West pioneers) and metafictional reflections on how they function (such as those provided in psychoanalytic theory) that promote male authority over the material reality while also promoting male authority over the fictional and metafictional realities that explain women's relationship to the material world and the social significance of this relationship. In this view, the material reality and the language through which we own the material in the mind's eye are thoroughly imbricated.(6)
Kennedy's stories analyzed here register the disciplining effects of male-generated social myths that can be said to be endorsed through psychoanalytic understandings of phallic power. However, the stories also envision opportunities for the reconstruction of women's personal and social identity through subversive use of the authority wielded through the myths and of the power lines they enable. The narrative configurations of women's subjectivities in Kennedy's stories depart from reiterated narrative patterns that, in their enactment as discourse, activate deictic forces through which women are assigned disempowering (social) roles.
To the extent that these deictic forces can be seen, in a psychoanalytic understanding of discourse, as drawing a realm of masculine dominance through the symbolic power of the phallus, a challenge to these deictic forces would be a challenge to myths of signification that privilege the male body as resource for metaphors and metonyms. In my reading of "Rockaway and the Draw" I sought to identify possibilities of envisioning such a challenge. This reading shows that the American West ethos of legitimately staking claims on territories and bodies can serve as a conduit for phallic power. But in "Rockaway and the Draw," Suzanne appropriates the realm of the symbolic, working within the realms of American West stories enacted in her fantasy, to transform it. She thus stakes a claim on the realm of signification, a claim that has far reaching implications for it also entails a challenge to the institutions that are legitimated through the network of myths and stories that connect bodies, sexuality, conquest of territories, their reform, notions of domestic bliss, etc., to form the structures of male-dominated gender regimes.
In evoking possibilities of re-creating the metafictions through which our fantasies of ourselves are governed--fantasies from which we derive our subjective identities in dissance courses through which we present ourselves to ourselves and to others--Kennedy's stories show ways out of oppressive social constituencies and the possibility of their reconstruction. This effect of Kennedy's writing can be contextualized with the project of many feminist theorists and writers whose revisionist work challenges "the social fictions that regulate our lives," to use Angela Carter's words (38). Although Kennedy does not consider herself affiliated to such feminist projects, her short fiction can be read productively by engaging feminist theories that critique masculine power as reflected in social structures and personal relationships. The subjective identities Kennedy's texts reconstruct influence conceptions about the range of possibilities available for women's socialization and may determine women to act in empowering ways in social reality. They may thus steer reality through discourse.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex." New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.
Caputi, Jane. Goddesses and Monsters: Women, Myth, Power and Popular Culture. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2004. Print.
Carter, Angela. "Notes from the Front Line." Shaking a Leg: Collected Journalism and Writings. Ed. Joan Smith. London: Vintage, 1998. 36-43. Print.
Cixous, Helene. "The Laugh of the Medusa." New French Feminisms. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1980. 245-64. Print.
Craig, Amanda. "Passion & Physics." Rev. of Original Bliss, by A. L. Kennedy. New Statesman 10 Jan. 1997: 47. Print.
Dunnigan, Sarah M. "A. L. Kennedy's Longer Fiction: Articulate Grace." Contemporary Scottish Women Writers. Ed. Aileen Christianson and Alison Lumsden. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2000. 144-55. Print.
Flax, Jane. "Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory." Feminism/Postmodernism. Ed. Linda Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1990. 39-62. Print.
Freeman, Hadley. "She's Donne It Again." Rev. of Indelible Acts, by A. L. Kennedy. Observer 24 Nov 2002: 17. Print.
Freud, Sigmund. "On Narcissism: An Introduction" (1914). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 14. Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1961. 67-104. Print.
Gifford, Douglas. "Contemporary Fiction II: Seven Writers in Scotland." A History of Scottish Women's Writing. Ed. Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1997. 604-29. Print.
Grosz, Elizabeth. Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1990. Print.
Hunter, Dianne. "Hysteria, Psychoanalysis, and Feminism: The Case of Anna O." Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory. Ed. Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury. New York: Columbia UP, 1997. 257-76. Print.
Kennedy, A. L. Everything You Need. London: Vintage, 2000. Print.
--. "Indelible Acts." Indelible Acts. New York: Knopf, 2003. 97-105. Print.
--. "Rockaway and the Draw." New Scottish Writing. Ed. Harry Ritchie. London: Bloomsbury, 1996. 138-52. Print.
--. "Rockaway and the Draw." Original Bliss. London: Vintage, 1998. 1-18. Print.
--. So I Am Glad. London: Vintage, 1996. Print.
--. "Star Dust." Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains. London: Phoenix, 1993. 82-91. Print.
Lacan, Jacques. "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function, as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience." Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Bruce Fink in collaboration with Heloise Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004. 3-9. Print.
--. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III: The Psychoses 1955-1956. Ed. Jacques-Allain Miller. Trans. Russell Grigg. New York: Norton, 1993. Print.
Lumsden, Alison. "Scottish Women's Short Stories: 'Repositories of Life Swiftly Apprehended.'" Contemporary Scottish Women Writers. Ed. Aileen Christianson and Alison Lumsden. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2000. 156-69. Print.
March, Cristie L. Rewriting Scotland. Welsh, McLean, Warner, Banks, Galloway and Kennedy. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2002. Print.
Review of Indelible Acts, by A. L. Kennedy. Kirkus Reviews 1 May 2003: 631-32. Print.
Rubin, Gayle. "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex." Toward an Anthropology of Women. Ed. Rayna Reitner. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975. 157-210. Print.
Smith, Andrea. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005. Print.
Waugh, Teresa. "This Small Masterpiece." Rev. of Original Bliss, by A. L. Kennedy. Spectator 18 Jan. 1997: 35-36. Print.
(1) "Rockaway and the Draw" first appeared in New Scottish Writing in 1996 and is the opening story in the 1997 collection Original Bliss, first published by Jonathan Cape. I am using the version from the collection Original Bliss republished by Vintage in 1998.
(2) Unless noted otherwise, all italics in quotations appear in the original texts.
(3) In her analysis of the effects of phallic power systems, Caputi, invoking Eva Keuls's The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens (Berkeley: U of California P, 1985) and the works of other feminist scholars, argues that "The phallus--for both popular culture and high psychoanalytic theory--serves as the grandiose and universal signifier of male superiority, authority, law, and domination. Phallocratic systems are characterized by imperialism, fraternity, men's club models of power, and the sexual ownership and abuse of women and all that is identified as feminine" (244).
(4) The permanence of men's hold on women's minds and bodies through marking women's identities with the paraph of masculine authority is extensively explored in Kennedy's work. For instance, Dunnigan highlights Kennedy's concern with women's making sense of their life in reference to the masculine figures of father and lover in Kennedy's first novel Looking for the Possible Dance (London: Vintage, 1998) and in Everything You Need (Dunnigan 149-51).
(5) I emphasize, however, that my argument does not refer to psychoanalytic theory as a whole, but only to those theories or aspects of theories that privilege the role of the phallus as an instrument through which men gain access to authority, while women are theorized as naturally lacking the means to gain such access. For a critique of such theories see, for instance, Luce Irigaray's This Sex Which Is Not One (Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985). There is, of course, a long tradition of privileging the role of women and mothers in psychoanalysis, sometimes in ways that challenge patriarchal authority. Feminist studies also challenge the patriarchal uses of psychoanalytic theory, while defending the important role of psychoanalysis, in Dianne Hunter's words, as practice that subverts "the reigning cultural order by exploding its linguistic conventions and decomposing its facade of orderly conduct" (273).
(6) An analysis of Kennedy's texts in reference to psychoanalytic understandings of gender, identity, and sociality is also justified by the writer's characteristic concern with showing characters' identities as being conditioned by how they own themselves, or are owned by others, in language. Nathan Staples, the troubled writer of Kennedy's novel Everything You Need, says, "I like to recall, now and then, that language belongs to me, to the individual, to each and every individual--that anyone who wants to own it is trying to own me" (295). In the novel So I Am Glad, Jennifer finds her realness in a stranger's language giving her the fantasy of love carried in the myth about Cyrano de Bergerac. She loves through the reiteration of that fantasy, yet in ways that allow her to reconstruct it so that the "I" of her story is that of a self enriched through the "I" recollected from Bergerac's story. According to Dunnigan, "in an echo of Renais sance Neoplatonism, Jennifer and Savinien are indivisible so that for the first time she can utter the charmed pronoun of lovers--'We. That's Savinien and I. Us.'... and the word 'love' meaningfully ... Their dreams coalesce until that very simultaneity is a harbinger of Savinien's final departure" (Dunnigan 153-54; Kennedy, So I Am Glad 222). Thus, while being owned in Bergerac's story, Jennifer also owns it in an erotic and spiritual dialogue through which she acquires an empowering identity (Gifford 621; March 154).
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|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2011|
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