Utopias of/f Language in Contemporary Feminist Literary Dystopias(*)

By Cavalcanti, Ildney | Utopian Studies, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Utopias of/f Language in Contemporary Feminist Literary Dystopias(*)


Cavalcanti, Ildney, Utopian Studies


"... language is power, life, and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation."

--Carter, 77.

I. Introduction:

FUTURISTIC DYSTOPIAS ARE STORIES ABOUT LANGUAGE. This is true, firstly, in the sense that ultimately all fictional works are narcissistic and metafictional, i.e., besides telling a `surface' tale, they also tell the story of their own existence (their possibility and limitations) as cultural artefacts concretized via the specific medium of language. Secondly, because all speculative fictions are characterized by a special type of metafictionality, being `more' metafictional than other (realistic, or mimetic) literary forms. They overtly expose their metafictional quality by having a distinct relationship with language itself and with their `non-existent' referents.(1) Thirdly, this century's (male) canonical dystopias thematize issues related to language, which often functions as a source of conflict in the narrative. Linguistic control and the enforcement of strict linguistic normativity symbolically stand in for other forms of social (ideological, political, institutional) control.(2)

Contemporary feminist dystopias overtly thematize the linguistic construction of gender domination by telling stories about language as instrument of both (men's) domination and (women's) liberation.(3) The silencing of women by men has surfaced in a number of ways: strongly regulated forms of address and turn-taking; enforced use of formulaic or contrived speech (sometimes reaching the extreme circumstance in which the female protagonist has to communicate by following a script); prohibition of access to public speech, reading and/or writing, specially creative writing; denial of representation in political forums; or, more effectively, the cutting out of women's tongues.(4) All these expose the interweaving of linguistic manipulation and dominant patriarchal ideologies in the dystopic spaces, while at the same time giving the texts their feminist ideological hues, as these elements can be interpreted as (sometimes crude and straightforward) metaphors for the historical silencing of women.

Besides featuring as an instrument enforcing a dystopic male order, language has a liberating potential in the feminist dystopias. I am referring to the utopian response to the imposed (male) norm, evidenced by the women characters' dissatisfaction with their status in relation to language. In a counter move to restrictive practices, they engage in a series of subversive actions of resistance that range from the strategic "masquerading" of their femininity by means of appropriate `feminine' speech to camouflaged singing and message-networking, from the process of re-naming to storytelling and creative writing, from the reinvestment of a sign with a new meaning to the creation of a whole alternative system of meanings. In an extremist response, one of the utopian strategies observed in the texts consists in the radical escape from (verbal) language itself, a move which is paradoxically rendered by means of storytelling, i.e., of verbal language. Women's resistance is observed in these fictions in terms of the strategies they develop to evade a dystopic linguistic order by means of the construction of what I have termed utopias of and off language (Cavalcanti, 1999).

My main argument is that in the feminist dystopias, dystopic and utopic dispositions (represented by male and female principles) confront each other, and that this confrontation is often enacted by means of linguistic struggle. I will investigate different, at times contradictory, facets of (a-)linguistic utopianisms in four narratives published in the 1980's: Lisa Turtle's "The Cure" (1984), Suzette Elgin's Native Tongue (1984) and its sequel The Judas Rose (1987),(5) and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985).(6) Before proceeding to the analysis of each of the texts, I will explain the theoretical approach that will help to guide my readings.

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