Eudora Welty's "Petrified Man"
The problem, from the beginning, is language; or rather, more properly, the problem is what happens to language when it becomes "discourse": when it is, in the words of Thomas Pynchon, "taken out of the course flow—shaped, cleaned, rectified, [and] redeemed . . . from the lawless, mortal streaming of human speech." 1 This is a becoming illusion, for who is to say which came first? Was "lawless" speech there, in the beginning, prior to its redemption under the law of discourse and its conversion into a linguistic system of signs which reveal the pressures of cultural refinement? Or did "language," uttered or inscribed, arise from these very pressures as the signature of our being under the law? What compels us to speak as we do, and what is the source of this compulsion?
The ontological questions posed by looking for the origins of language, while finally unanswerable in any absolute sense, are at least approachable when language as ruled into discourse is considered in light of a feminist critique. Another way of putting this is to remark that one of the crucial functions of some feminist theory is to question the relation of language to culture in several ways. 2 To what extent, for example, is the language we use to speak, write with, and articulate our readings of texts constricted by a repressive cultural order that authorizes patriarchy, materialism, competition without restraint, and unbounded egotism? How much do given political or social realities affect language itself, down to its etymologies and grammatical structures? Does language have the ability, as Bakhtin claims it does when shaped into narrative, to parody the authorized discourse of the day? 3 Or can language be made to work against itself