We are about halfway through the semester. Let's talk about where we are,
and how we've gotten there. What have we been learning, and, more importantly,
why have we been learning it?
In reading structuralist theory, we've started to ask questions about the way words make meaning, about the structure of language itself, about the relationships between signifier and signified, and about the idea of negative value and difference. In poststructuralist theory, such as deconstruction, we've been asking questions about binary oppositions, and how such binary oppositions structure the way we perceive, think about, and act in our world. In psychoanalytic theories, we've been asking questions about the idea of a "self," about how identity is formed, and about the relationship between consciousness and unconscious, between notions of "self" and "other." In doing so, we've had to throw out (or at least put away) some of our most cherished ideas from the humanist tradition, and we've had to grapple with the fundamental premises of poststructuralist thought. These ideas include:
1) that "identity" or selfhood is not something natural, essential, or innate, but rather is something that is constructed.
2) that "selfhood" is constructed from and within language; that selfhood is an illusion produced by language; that language is an impersonal structure which "subjects" inhabit; that language speaks "us."
3) that determinate meaning in language is a product of, and the illusion of, a structure which is stabilized by a center, which limits play and which subjects all language users to its rules.
4) that "truth" is not stable or eternal but provisional, and socially constructed.
We might use the following model to illustrate how these ideas can change
how we think about literary studies in particular:
Under the humanist model, an AUTHOR, or original creative self, could write
a TEXT, which was a place where language worked to create layers of meaning,
which a READER, or interpreting self, could consume, usually internalizing some
part of the author's meaning as "truth."
Under the poststructuralist model, LANGUAGE as structure produces two things:
SUBJECTS (who write, speak, and use signs, but as the vehicle through which
language works, rather than as original creative beings) and TEXTS (which are
combinations of signs or signifiers which also serve as vehicles through which
language works). SUBJECTS inhabit a wide variety of positions within the structure
of language, two of which are AUTHOR and READER--no different from any other
subject position made possible by the structure of language (i.e. Lacan's Symbolic
Order). Similarly, TEXTS as microcosms of language also produce SUBJECT POSITIONS,
that is, positions within which readers place themselves as they read a text;
such positions govern a subject's range of interpretation, just as the structure
of language itself governs a subject's possible speech. So just as language
as a whole creates its speakers, or subjects, so too do texts create their own
readers, or subject positions. And, as we'll see when we get to Foucault, texts
create their authors as well. But we'll get to that later.
In looking at feminist theories, we're going to add yet another element to
these ideas about language, selfhood, and meaning: the element of GENDER. The
poststructuralist feminist theories we're reading examine how gender identity
is also socially constructed, rather than natural, innate, or essential; they
also see gender as the product of, or an illusion created by, the same structures
of language that create ideas of selfhood and meaning. And the specific feminist
theories we're reading examine how WRITING is a gendered product of those structures
In order to understand poststructuralist feminist theories' contributions
to the ideas we've been building so far this semester, we need to start by talking
about the word "feminism." What is it? We listed a variety of associations on
the board, most of which had to do with popular cultural representations of
feminism, some of which were positive and some of which were negative. Let me
give you a more academic, and perhaps more neutral or non-political, approach.
Start with the idea that gender is a cultural universal: all societies mark
gender distinctions in some way, though of course all societies make those markings
differently. So feminist thought asks whether gender is biological or cultural--is
it innate and "natural" or is it socially constructed? Is anatomy destiny, as
Freud asserted, so that genetics, biology, morphology, physiology, and brain
chemistry determine social roles for men and women, so that what is biologically
male is by definition masculine, and what is biologically female is by definition
feminine? Is gender then essential, eternal, natural, god-given, unchangeable,
and true? OR (and most feminist thought favors this answer) is gender socially
constructed, therefore variable, mutable, not necessarily correlated with anatomical
or genetic determinants?
It's worth noting, in passing, that scientific studies about gender in relation
to genetics and chemistry and body structure tend to say gender is both: it's
enormously mutable, but there does seem to be something that might be essential
(as evidenced in some recent studies of sex ambiguity or transsexuals).
Poststructuralist cultural theorists of gender, on the other hand, say that
gender is a set of SIGNIFIERS attached to sexually dimorphic bodies, and that
these signifiers work to divide social practices and relations into the binary
oppositions of male/female and masculine/feminine. You might think here about
high heels as a signifier: generally wearing high heels signifies that there's
a vagina and breasts attached to the feet that wear them, as they are a signifier
of femaleness/femininity. But anyone can wear high heels-- and risk
being seen as feminine because of it. You might also think about recent studies
concerning the variety of genetic sex markers: genetics and physiology allow
for about 8 different "sexes," including what we would call hermaphrodites,
or people with ambiguous sex organs, but cultural pressure and Western medicine
almost always treat gender anomalies by "assigning" male or female gender identity
to the person, and surgically and hormonally treating that person so that they
(more or less) conform to our binary gender system.
So, from the poststructuralist viewpoint,
1) "gender" is a relationship established between signifiers, things that signal gender, and signifieds, taken to be the physical sex of the person. Like all signifier-signified connections, this relationship is ARBITRARY.
2) "gender" operates within Western constructs of binary opposites, so that
gender signifiers always point to either a male or a female body, and to masculine
or feminine traits.
3) Since "gender" is constructed through arbitrary signifiers, the connection
between signifier and signified can be weakened, changed, or broken; since the
signifiers of gender help maintain the system of binary oppositions that shape
Western thought, by dividing the world into "male" and "female," "masculine"
and "feminine," gender can be deconstructed, and the elements that constitute
stable notions of gender can be put into play.
Feminist theories look at how gender is constructed, how gender and gender
roles are signified. You can find studies of such gender construction in virtually
every discipline in the university, including the hard sciences: it's certainly
a prominent feature in the social sciences and humanities. Academic disciplines
have embraced feminist theories, in part as pure knowledge, for the same reason
we embrace any kind of theory in academe--because the theory explains something
we want or need to know. But feminist theory, like most poststructuralist theories,
always has a political dimension as well. That political dimension consists,
at the very least, of an awareness of the power imbalances enforced and upheld
by the inequalities in the binary oppositions which structure how we think about
our world and how we act in it. Even more than just an "awareness" of these
imbalances and inequalites, feminist theories provide an analysis of how these
inequalities evolved, how they operate, and-- perhaps most importantly but also
most disturbingly--how they might/could/should be changed in order to create
a different, more equitable, arrangement of social power and privilege. And
this last element--the element of social change, of political advocacy--is generally
what makes people uncomfortable with the idea of feminism.
My own political note here: look at how the rhetoric of Western U.S. feminism
is being used in the current portrayals of our "war" against terrorism and the
bombing of Afghanistan. The Taliban are evil in part because of how they "enslave"
women, and Western efforts to defeat the Taliban are phrased in terms of "liberating"
the Afghani/Muslim women who are "imprisoned" within their overtly and strictly
But back to the academic discussion. Feminist literary theorists in particular
examine how gender coding and gender inequity are produced, distributed, perpetuated--AND
questioned, challenged, and rewritten--in literary texts.
We'll be looking at two strands of feminist (literary) theory: an Anglo-American pragmatic strand, and a poststructuralist strand. The first is represented by Sandra Gilbert's article; the second by the so-called "French feminists" Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray.
The Anglo-American tradition emerges from the "women's liberation" movement
of the 1960s and 1970s, and is parallel to and related to other "liberatory"
movements of that era, including socialism, civil rights, anti-racism activism,
and gay rights. Sandra Gilbert's essay on "Literary Paternity" is our example
of this tradition. It's best labeled as "pre-poststructuralist"--it's not engaging
the ideas about subjects constructed in language which characterize poststructuralist
thought, but rather Gilbert uses humanist ideas about an essential gendered
self linked to a deterministic physiology. She is following Freud, rather than
Lacan, and represents a particularly American pragmatic stance, in that she's
interested in the origin and history of gender practices and inequalities in
order to understand how best to challenge and change them.
It's hard, 20 years after the original publication of Gilbert's essay, to find many academic literary feminist theorists who still adhere to the kind of pragmatic humanist ideas which form the basis for Gilbert's reasoning. Most feminist (literary) theorists now utilize some versions of the poststructuralist perspectives. In Alice Jardine's essay "Gynesis," first published in 1982, the year after Gilbert's essay, you can see the effort to explain some of these new poststructuralist ideas to an audience which is used to thinking of feminism and gender in humanist terms. Jardine is thus our bridge between Gilbert's approach and that of the poststructuralist European feminists, represented in our course by Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray, who examine gender as a signifying system, as a set of subject positions within the structure of the Symbolic Order, and who use freely the ideas of Lacan, Derrida, and Saussure (et al.) to think about how gender might be organized "other"wise. That's what we'll head into next week.