Feminist Hebrew Literary Criticism: The Political Unconscious
Fuchs, Esther, Hebrew Studies Journal
This article charts the basic outlines of my forthcoming collection on the historical and theoretical evolution of feminist Hebrew literary criticism in the last two decades. In this article, I argue that Hebrew feminist criticism, as an emerging field, is motivated by the desire to change the subject, shifting the almost obsessive concern with politics in the conventional sense of the word to discursive and cultural politics, from a concern with the collective and questions of national survival and security to interpersonal politics, and from the public to the private. My argument is that this shift is political. As I argued in my book, Israeli Mythogynies: Women in Contemporary Hebrew Fiction (1987), this shift has the potential to generate an internal re-evaluation of ethical and aesthetic values as well as a post-Zionist critique of national priorities. Hebrew feminist literary critics then question the canonic and ideological priorities of the critical establishment and use gender as a point of departure for critical assessments of various dichotomies that structure the Zionist narrative. Gender thus becomes a point of departure for reading the national canon, and the politics of literary presentation--differently. The shift away from national politics paradoxically leads back to it, but this time the topic is visited critically from both Zionist and post-Zionist perspectives (e.g., Naomi Seidman, Yael Feldman, Iris Parush, Hannah Naveh, Hannan Hever, and Orly Lubin).
The term "political" in the title of this essay refers to an interpretive activity that seeks to unveil the ideological construction of what appears to be a natural, self evident representation of social reality. The recognition that all texts have what Fredric Jameson referred to as a "political unconscious" informs several postmodern discourses in addition to feminism. (1) The political is often unconscious in Western literary criticism because literary creativity often presents itself as a product of individual talent, a particular biography, or universal human psychology--in short as "natural" and seamless. (2) A political criticism unveils points of resistance to the hegemonic regime of knowledge that presents its interpretation of personal and national life as unmediated, as a totalizing truth. In feminist Hebrew literary criticism, these points of resistance are generally located in two areas: the resistance to the exclusion of women from the canon, and what I will define as a post-Zionist resistance to the gendered construction of the nation as such. A national feminist approach questions the omission of Zionist female agencies from the narration of the nation, and often seeks to reconstruct an alternative space for these agencies placing them in some relationship of androgynous ambiguity with the culture at large. Masculine and feminine refer to cultural formations, such as the feminine culture of Yiddish over against the masculine culture of Hebrew. The fundamental concern of national feminism is to uncover the muted voices of women who have transformed, contributed, and constructed the nation. Post-Zionist approaches tend to use feminism as a starting point from which to interrogate the totalizing definitions of nation and its hegemonic narrations. The distinction I draw here between national and post-national critiques should not be taken as an absolute demarcation between two distinct lines of inquiry, but rather as an outline of relative emphasis. In the following overview of major feminist literary theory and criticism of the last two decades, I try as much as possible to shun evaluations of one or the other trend, though I suggest that they are informed by a political unconscious, as they uncover the political implications of literary fictions.
The feminist reading of difference is political to the extent that it interprets it as an alternative, or counter-voice to a master narrative of the literary canon and literary criticism. Previous surveys of the history of Hebrew feminist criticism offered a descriptive overview of the field. (3) This article seeks to dislocate the descriptive perspective and shift our focus to the political implications of feminist literary critical work. I suggest that two trends are at work in the field: national feminism, which seeks inclusion in the nation's narration and self representation, and post-national critique which questions the Zionist meta-narrative. While national feminism is concerned mostly with questions of exclusion and misrepresentation, post-national feminism is concerned with the ethnic, national, and class dimensions of the nation and its narration. In the following discussion, I use feminism and post-feminism as mutually deconstructing perspectives in order to highlight both the Anglo-American and French theories that inspire the work of those critics who focus on women's agency and text. (4) I categorize work that focuses on the critique, subversion, and transformation of the Zionist meta-narrative as a reflection of unresolved tensions between Zionist and Post-Zionist modalities. (5) I would like to begin the discussion by re-reading my own work which includes both of these political perspectives.
In 1987, in the introduction to my book, Israeli Mythogynies: Women in Contemporary Hebrew Fiction, I mounted, what was perhaps the first feminist critique of Hebrew literary criticism as a nationalized and masculinized cultural discourse. (6) My critique of the academic and cultural frameworks of the field was double-pronged. I focused on the problem of exclusion on the one hand, and of interpretation and evaluation on the other. I questioned the critical oblivion to women's fiction in Hebrew literary history, and highlighted the tendency to deny women's national and political agency in the male-dominated canon. In this literature, women were embodied as emblems of private consumption, material and social dependency, and somatic and psychic pathology. (7) Objectified as mindless bodies in the nationalist "Palmah Generation" of the late 1940s and 1950s, women continue to be marginalized and stigmatized as destructive and threatening in the "New Wave" of the 1960s-1970s. (8) The modern Zionist or non-Zionist Israeli woman was nowhere to be seen in the literature that spanned both generations from the establishment of the state in the late 1940s to the late 1970s. Though I focused on work by men, I indicated that even in women's fiction, the representation of an autonomous, independent woman, in her various guises as citizen, activist, politician, professional, creative, intellectual, worker, or even settler and soldier was peculiarly rare in contemporary canonic Israeli fictional representations.
I also argued that as authors, women were absent from leading anthologies, and literary surveys in both Hebrew and in translation, in poetry and prose. (9) I argued that on the rare occasions when women's work was critically recognized, it was mostly for its aesthetic value rather than for its substantive, social, and political significance or innovative, revolutionary, or subversive potential. (10) Little did I imagine at that point in time that within two decades a spate of anthologies of Israeli women's fiction and poetry would be published in both Hebrew and English, focusing on both contemporary and pre-state periods. (11) Within two decades, feminist criticism has carved out a space within Hebrew literary academy, as volumes continue to be published on women's literary history as well as their literary representations by male authors in various periods. (12)
I would like to caution that too enthusiastic an evaluation of the literary outpour by women in the 1980s and 1990s may shift the analytic focus from ideological critique to a ghettoized proliferation of optimistic assessments. Thus for example, in the introduction to The Defiant Muse: Hebrew Feminist Poems from Antiquity to the Present, the editors offer the following conclusion:
The last quarter of the twentieth century has witnessed an enormous surge of women's literary creativity, in poetry as well as in prose. Women have now taken their place in Israeli literature. Women poets need no longer be subversive; and they are continuing to develop an open and self-assured feminist outlook. Taken together, the poets collected in this volume have a powerful impact. (13)
This sanguine evaluation of the status of feminism and feminist creativity in the state is typical of numerous publications that point to the sheer numbers of women's publications as proof and measure of the success of feminism in the state, and the end of an oppressive history of masculine hegemony in the nation's cultural life. This evaluation asserts that the omission of women from the national narrative is an accident, a burden of a no longer relevant past. The editors define as the culprits of continued patriarchal domination the army and religious institutions. Culture and literature, those areas of refined intellectual activity, the locus of national narration remain as it were outside the parameters of male domination, intact by past mistakes. This perspective understands culture and literature as sites that are somehow uncontaminated by the obscurantism that continues to dominate other social institutions:
But even as the fruition is recognized, the convulsive history of Israel's young statehood has foregrounded and empowered male-dominated institutions, primarily the Orthodox rabbinate and the army. These institutions have little tolerance for women's rights and women's presence in the public arena. (14)
The notion that the last several …
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Publication information: Article title: Feminist Hebrew Literary Criticism: The Political Unconscious. Contributors: Fuchs, Esther - Author. Journal title: Hebrew Studies Journal. Volume: 48. Publication date: Annual 2007. Page number: 195+. © 2008 National Association of Professors of Hebrew. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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