'Loving Certain Human Things': (1) Feminism, Sexuality and Women's Interrupted Fictions

By Linden, Maya | Journal of Australian Studies, January 2005 | Go to article overview

'Loving Certain Human Things': (1) Feminism, Sexuality and Women's Interrupted Fictions


Linden, Maya, Journal of Australian Studies


None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory ... (2)

This quotation from Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation raises many questions related to the problematisation and analysis of textual representations. While Sontag's text dates from 1967 post-structuralist debate, the queries and complications it provokes remain pertinent to a contemporary re-evaluation of theoretical influences on fiction. In the light of critical theory and literary analysis, I propose that there can never be an 'innocent text' devoid of political stance or statement; that is, there can never be a text that neither confirms nor denies the intents of dominant ideologies but merely exists to represent thought or experience. The creative texts of women are particularly interrogated in the wake of feminist theory, both literary and political. In this article, I will examine the manner in which a range of feminist movements, both literary and political, can be understood as either resonating with or censoring women's creative depictions of sexuality and desire from the 1970s to the present day.

There has been a consistent and, at times, problematic tendency toward analysing a woman's text as if it is a direct expression of the author's political opinions and/or personal experience. Cora Kaplan explains:

   For feminist critics, the literary is always already political
   in very obvious and commonsense ways ... feminist criticism of
   the late 1960s and early 1970s worked on literary texts by women
   as if they were 'true' accounts of the socially real. (3)

Feminists still debate whether the mere foregrounding of women's life experience should mark a text as feminist, and whether feminist politics should define the boundaries of representable female experience--particularly where sexual cxplorations are concerned. As Rita Felski argues, 'feminist critics in literature, art. film and related fields often do make general claims about what does or does not constitute good art from a feminist point of view'. (4)

Just as a general understanding of textual conventions allows readers to judge which texts are seen as 'literary', the conventions of feminism are seen to inform an interpretation of the creative work of women in terms of its ideological function. This leads to a questioning of the political correctness of events and characterisations, and an attempt to expose 'how supposedly "truthful" and "honest" accounts of "reality" rely on distinct ideologies, in particular what men and women should be like'. (5) The deconstructionist approach of feminist literary theorists such as Kaplan and Barbara Johnson poses a challenge to traditional non-politicised literary criticism, where a clear interpretation of the text's meaning is sought and the assumption that fiction is an unproblematic representation of social reality goes unquestioned. (6) Such theorists confound this methodology by interrogating all representations of 'social reality' and 'women's experience' as potentially affirming a patriarchal ideology and thus as infinitely problematised, particularly where representations of heterosexuality echo traditional binary formations and are seen by the fictional characters as not necessarily positive, but nevertheless essential, alliances. (7)

Kaplan has argued that theory is 'a way of understanding that grim and comic conjunction of self "in" and "out" of society that the literary inscribes'. (8) However, there has always been a possibility that, through the influence of theoretical discourse, 'post-feminist' women's narratives could become essentially theoretical, occupying territory outside of mainstream society altogether. By speaking only to a marginalised audience or by neglecting aesthetic concerns, such narratives may become 'writing in which [the] message is more important than, and emphasized to the detriment of, form and/or language'. (9) I would add here that, if women's writing is to avoid this fate, authors and readers must remain alert to desires, motivations and recollections of experience that may contradict a set of prescriptive political beliefs.

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