Cosmopoetics and Politics: Were Those "Unacknowledged Legislators of the World" Actually Women?

By Smith-Hubbard, Julie L. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview
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Cosmopoetics and Politics: Were Those "Unacknowledged Legislators of the World" Actually Women?


Smith-Hubbard, Julie L., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


I begin with Virginia Woolfs "As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world." (1) In A Room of One's Own, Woolf theorizes that "we think back through our [literary] mothers, if we are women." (2) Mary Wollstonecraft, in her eighteenth-century A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, advocates for a woman's right to education and asks for the education of both sexes. (3) Today, I see Wollstonecraft's inheritors in Assia Djebar and Mahasweta Devi, women who are educating all of us while calling for political awareness and action. I use the term "Cosmopoetics" to define generally the nature of their aesthetics and to suggest specifically "how [their] contemporary narratives [which are worldwide rather than provincial in scope] determine and change readers' 'comprehensions of cultural differences.'" (4)

I claim "Legislators of the World" from Percy Bysshe Shelley's nineteenth -century "The Defense of Poetry" to emphasize both the social conscience of Devi and Djebar and the political potential in their writing. The phrase "Legislators of the World" implies a much larger domain than simply that of the male poet, which is suggested in Shelley's unfortunate use of the masculine pronoun throughout his "Defense." And his "poets" as legislators are actually those makers, poetry derives from the Greek verb poiein to make, who work to creatively and imaginatively transform the world. (5) Although the word "poetess" was ascribed to nineteenth century women writers, these poetesses, as Isobel Armstrong laments, were hamstrung by "duty" which forced them to uphold traditional patriarchal lines concerning what was expected in their verse. (6)

These two contemporary "Legislators of the World," Djebar and Devi, are neither Shelley's Romantic Platonists nor Victorian poetesses; they are two postcolonial fiction writers who are also film-makers, teachers, journalists, and political activists. They carefully avoid the potential minefields in Non-West representation: colonization agendas, hegemony, essentialist epistemologies, or what Shameem Black identifies as stereotyping, idealizations, and imaginative restraint, and what Gayatri Spivak denounces as the information retrieval approach to "Third World" literature. (7) And as they navigate these minefields, they take up questions of how to inhabit the world, and how to open a space for being and thinking.

In 1985 Assia Djebar published L'Amour, la fantasia, or Fantasia An Algerian Cavalcade. Her complex historical and autobiographical trajectories testify to her commitment to an authentic depiction of the difficulties of writing and thinking with different languages, in different cultures, at different times. She provides a map of Northern Algeria showing principle places and tribes mentioned in her text, a glossary of Arabic and Turkish words, and an historical chronology from 29 April 1827 to 1968. She supplements these reference materials with literary quotes and personal experiences drawn from archived French documents. She explores linguistic nuance, culls from musical terminology, and renders her own story powerfully and poetically while concomitantly preserving the peasant vernacular in her transcriptions of the oral testimonies of other Algerian women. In her representations, she often stands between what Julia Kristeva calls "trans-European temporality and archaic, mythological memory." (8)

Dorothy S. Blair's English translation preserves the poetic in Djebar's prose and pays exacting attention to Djebar's specificity. Djebar's novel begins with the nineteenth-century French artist Eugene Fromentin and a quote from his text, "A Year in the Sahel: "A heartrending cry arose--I can hear it still as I write to you--then the air was rent with screams, then pandemonium broke loose...." (9) She later entwines his story with hers and links the "cry" to Fantasia's themes of love and war. She ends with an incident from Fromentin's travels in Algeria where he picks something out of the dirt only to throw it back again; it is the hand of a woman that had been chopped off for its jewelry, a common practice during the war.

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Cosmopoetics and Politics: Were Those "Unacknowledged Legislators of the World" Actually Women?
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