Ideology and Culture: Towards Feminist Cultural History
Paddle, Sarah, Hecate
The relationship between culture and history, between text and experience, is of particular concern for feminists as a way of making meaning about the role of gender in cultural construction. Feminist cultural historians focus on the specificity of women's experience, authorship, language and understanding but, in so doing, privilege historical experience in the analysis of culture. We cannot be satisfied with an understanding of reality or culture as a web of overlapping discourses, but must include the historical experience of a particular time that develops or encodes contemporary culture.
In this context, the work of the French philosopher Michèle Le Doeuff provides us with a rereading of the relation between discourses and social practices - as I describe it, one of the key relationships in analyzing culture and history. Le Doeuff's view is that the analysis of culture must be linked with the operations of historically determined institutions. Le Doeuff also links the analysis of texts as culture with socio-economic movements, and socio-economic transformations, in what she calls sociological end political relations. The language she uses to describe these links refers to relationships which "condition" and "provide the context for philosophies." But the interest of what Le Doeuff is arguing, for me, is that she also goes on to analyse the inscription of sociological and political relations in the discourses of philosophy that have excluded women, so the very constitution of philosophic discourse "expresses, expels, represses end overcomes" that which has been aligned with the feminine in discourse (1987, 192).
I would like to suggest that Le Doeuff provides a useful position from which to advance feminist readings of Australian culture. For example, we need further work on the sexual division in education and instruction, as a way of understanding how women's access to philosophy and other public discourses was framed as a "break from the feminine condition." As Le Doeuff has described how women can only gain access to formal discourse through a man, often through approaching a philosopher or thinker as a "love-object," as disciple or vestal, in order to gain theory through "eroticotransference," so we might review our understanding of those women in Australian culture who did enter into the public world of writing about philosophy, history, politics end theology.
Michèle Le Doeuff's comments on women and philosophy may also make accessible for us a position for reading the gander ideology of early nineteenth century society. It is not new to see the construction of gender at that time as aligned with the affirmation of bourgeois ideology and as, at times, framed against the relative permissiveness of the aristocracy. But Le Doeuff also locates the bourgeois view of gender against an increasing polarization of the ideology of sexual difference, whereby women were increasingly confined to the sphere of feelings and emotions. The contemporary ideal of Romantic love was constructed as "an episode in a man's life, end the whole story of a women's."
Le Doeuff also provides us with a useful theorizing of the exclusion of women from public discourse. Women were constructed as incapable of philosophizing; the nature of woman's desire was to be subsumed in the domestic:
In fact it is women's desire that has always been minimized, since it is often thought that baby rattles are enough for them. What, is a man not sufficient to make them feel complete? Is there still a lack, the recognition of which creates the desire to philosophize? (Grosz 1989, 209)
Le Doeuff also forces us to problematize our speaking position in writing women's history. She includes a description of the roles taken by those women in the past who have been allowed to philosophize. I find uncomfortable parallels with current mainstream writers of women's history. Women historians, in her terms, may be: the nurse of dismembered texts; the healer of works battered by false editions; the housewife given the task of the upkeep of important edifices and monuments; the vestal of true discourse that time threatens to eclipse; or finally, a god's priestess, dedicated to a great dead man. Women historians, as well as philosophers may be the domestics of the profession - even if they are writing "women's history." We can recognize these gendered roles as feminized versions of the historians' project. But surely they also stand as a warning that feminist cultural history has to be wary of traditional roles servicing the discipline and that feminists must retain their independence and their political agenda in writing history.
A concern I have about the current increase in publishing about women's writing is that publishers so far have tended to focus on the autobiographical or creative mode of women's writing, thus privileging the private, the domestic, the emotional and intuitive model of women as writers. My concern is that this focus may tend to valorize or reaffirm the old phallocentric categories, and I think that feminists have to be wary of writing only about women's cultural experience and production in these ways. There were women who also wrote/intervened in the public discourses of the period - who were not loth to enter the "male"domain of writing on politics, philosophy, education end theology. Patricia Clarke's Pen Portraits is very much an introductory study of nineteenth century women journalists, but at least it provides a roll call of some of these women writers.
These women writers, however, were women from non-working class backgrounds, end there is a clear need for feminist research on reconstructing the voices and the culture of working class women in the nineteenth century. There is a similar imperative for research on locating the voices of women from a different racial or cultural experience from the Anglo-Celtic world view of most published women. (See, eg. Swindells 1985).
Le Doeuff's argument stands alongside another tradition of feminist writing on cultural history and I propose to draw together some implications of this work, particularly in its focus on theories of ideology, and suggest some further directions for writing about nineteenth century culture.
There appear to be two main imperatives in the feminist project that incorporates a theory of ideology in approaching culture. The first can be described as a way of locating meaning in texts through contexts which gave rise to them - a dual process whereby one is read against the other (see Kaplan 1986). These contexts of culture, which might be economic, social and racial contexts, are sometimes described in rather flaccid terms as conditioning, expressing or mediating meanings in texts, but the relationship becomes more problematic if these cultural meanings are analysed as serving relations of domination (Thompson 1990). This reading position is essentially historical, a construction of time, place and events and, for feminists and others, a reading that implies that texts are grounded in the struggles that produced them. Ann Curthoys (1988) made a similar point when she said that the analysis of culture must include an understanding of social structures, that culture is structured by institutions and organisations, and formed and affected by inequalities of power produced by these structures. The approach that I am proposing locates cultural studies in its political context, and here I would draw on Cora Kaplan's argument for a politics of reading that is a process of interrogation of the class and race-bound assumptions as well as the concepts of gander and femininity in culture. Her point is that unless you include these constructs in your frame of reference your interpretation may simply reinforce or reproduce these divisions.
Michèle Barrett called for a theory of the politics of culture tan years ago, in women's Oppression Today, and, although she was writing then within the ambit of Althusserian structuralism, and suffers retrospectively from its current demise, her arguments about gander ideology still locate much of the debate. Along with contemporary Althusserians, she argued that culture must be seen as situated in the class society of the time, that is, produced as a mediation or interaction between the various modes of social formation, the general and specific ideologies of class and literary production, and the individual author in question. For Barrett, the feminist perspective on this relation enters when we understand that the situations under which women engage in literary and cultural production are different and divided from those experienced by men, and that this oppression and inequality will be encoded in the ideology of a text and in its production. This process of encoding gender ideology in a text Barrett describes as reproduction, and she attempts a schematization of the cultural processes of constructing a gendered subjectivity and identity for women. She lists stereotyping; "the wishfulfillment of patriarchy"; the process of compensation; and emphasis on the moral worth of women; collusion, complicity and the internalisation of oppression; and recuperation: the process of negating or defusing challenges to the dominant meanings of gender. A description of these ideological processes provides a useful starling point for reading men's texts, but not much of an interior position for reading women's writing, unless you extend the argument to say that the processes constructing gendered subjectivity are the same in men's and women's writing. Barrett does not go this far, but she does appear to isolate "gender ideology" to a separate referent on its own, apart from other aspects of the social formation and social experience. Her way of arguing this point is to refer to capitalism as "gender-blind," an approach which has been successfully challenged by Nancy Fraser (1989), and others.
One response to these gaps in Barrett's analysis is to turn the discussion to focus on women's writing, to situate women's writings as a site of protest, and to emphasize subversion and resistance in women's responses to the dominant ideology of the time. Judith Lowder Newton, for example, writing in 1981 in the shadow of American gynocriticism, on early nineteenth century English literature, argues that ideology is central to women's oppression, and that reading literature gives us access to ideological distortions and misrepresentations of the conditions of women's lives, personal experience, and the general ideologies that legitimate the power of the male bourgeoisie at the time. The attraction of what Newton and others were saying was that it gave welcome expression to the concept of women as culturally powerful, as radically resistant to dominant images of subordination and control. Newton's theorizing about power and subversion in women's writing is a useful feminist reading of structuralist theories of culture and ideology. She focuses on representations and distortions of reality, the text "evoking" historical situations, and power "naturalized" or ignored in texts. Her aim, in her words, is to investigate:
...how specific ideologies governing middle class women intersect with and are interdependent upon more general ideologies which sustain and legitimate the power of the male bourgeoisie. (13)
But for me, there is a tension in this metaphor of women as subverters of power: it is often premised on a conception of ideology as false consciousness, or disguise, through which women are denied any access to a true knowledge of the situation they are writing about, or experiencing. Here we re-impose the critic or historian with privileged access to a true understanding, and women's resistance is effectively relegated to the tactics of the resisting weak and ignorant. Again, as Janet Todd has pointed out, the structuralist model privileges, as context and base, men's power and the male literary tradition which the women authors are seen to be subverting (1988, 101).
Despite this the arguments so far have, I think, established that a cultural analysis that focused on the ideological basis of power contributes to an understanding that both women's and men's writings encode ideologies of dominance and subordination as experienced in the specific historical society of their time.
Perhaps a more helpful way of writing in feminist concerns about culture in this historical context is to focus more on the fractures, separations, and dissonance in cultural relations. This is where Gramsci's point in the Prison Notebooks about hegemony can still have some purchase: when he argues that the cultural power of the dominant classes is a result of struggle, articulation, transformation and rejection by subordinate groups. There is no hegemony, ideological, economic or racial, that does not have to be won, secured and constantly defended and contested. A feminist concern for gender can enter as one of the fields in which contradiction, tension and conflict take place. This conception of different fields of struggle, defined historically and specifically over time, allows a way of theorizing cultural and class relations over a very wide range of fronts. This is clearly a way of approaching cultural history that is accessible to feminist concerns, without losing sight of other important experiences of power and subordination that also locate women's experiences.
Some of the more recent theoretical dimensions established by post-structuralism and post-modernism have exposed the presence of ideology in culture as no longer mystical, transcendent, or always an illusion. It may be read as the concrete expression of social experience, as metaphor, code of reference, as symbol or image within the language of a text. Thus we have had, for example, historians focusing on cultural images of hands, dirt, filth, and the space of the streets as gendered symbols of class and racial divisions (Kaplan 1988). It is also helpful to read women's and men's writings as a construction of meanings, ideological, social, economic and racial, in a relationship where each can contextualize and comment on the other. A mode of plural readings allows ready access for a feminist intervention, a reading against the grain that can also include a focus on what have now been described as the languages of class, gender and race. The assumptions, the substratum, and the subtext of cultural experience are made present, often in contradiction (see Ellis 1989; Fraser 1989).
In these theoretical constructions the process of locating turbulence and contradiction within texts is regarded as an important pert of establishing meaning. As has been shown in Mary Poovey's recent historical studies, the text may be seen as an active agent, it contributes to the work of ideology; and it works or participates in a complex social activity. The text itself is more than a site for the encoding of social experience and, as an active agent, produces shifts and moves in ideology. I think that this is a new focus on culture as creative which is a worthwhile move away from any theory of representation as superimposed meanings. But if one rejects the emphasis on reproduction and structure in the early debates, and allows for a much more open and contested reading of culture, there is a continuity in the reading positions that I have been describing that I think is still worth emphasizing. Across the broadest possible range of cultural experiences, from the construction of commonsense to lived experience, a range of cultural processes includes myths and imaginary versions not of some `outside' social relationship; these processes themselves must be seen to encode, intrude and constitute part of the social relationship.
In my view, these discourses of post-modernism and post-structuralism have extended enormously the range and variety of interpretative modes open to and accessible to feminist historians. I think we now have to be much more aware of our "reading and writing positions" in constructing cultural history. We need a developed notion of the audience as a construct of culture - both the audience that shapes our own writing, and the audience that was important to women and men in the past. I think we are conscious now of the use of concepts like textuality: the fabric of languages and meaning that has a presence in and through our understanding of the past. As Marxist theorists of culture were the first to point out, we have to move beyond unitary conceptions of self and subjectivity of author, reader, and agent. Finally, as Le Doeuff has noted, we must question the position of the feminist historian as arbiter and interpreter of truth through the past.
But I want to emphasize the earlier tradition of feminists making sense of cultural history - so that in this brave new poststructuralist world, we don't lose sight of the project of locating the historical experience in and through culture. What I hope this paper has been demonstrating is that a feminist theory of historical oppression derived from an analysis of conflicting discourses is not, on its own, sufficient. The ideology of gender is institution and practice, in its historical context, and can be only partially read through its expression in language and literary form. Another way of saying this is to argue that the concept of sexual difference is not sufficient, and that we have to return to the analysis of division, subordination and oppression as a way of making sense of cultural experience and production (Barrett 1980, 71).
In conclusion, a few comments on what some of this might mean for an Australian feminist cultural history of the first half of the nineteenth century. Much of the work has yet to be done. We need to develop a theory and history of the access, production and consumption of culture for both women and men, that includes a history of reading, and a history of audience. I think feminist cultural history needs a new focus, in Le Doeuff's terms, on the social institutions that create/make the feminine: the mediators, the gatekeepers, the systems of patronage, recruitment and training.
The project implies a reconstruction of the current view of nineteenth century social formation, and the ideologies of emergent groups. For example, the belief of the pastoral gentry in their own moral ascendancy in the face of convict entrepreneurs was framed against the struggle to dispossess the Kooris. This cultural history must be read as politically gendered, but also bourgeois women writing at the time need to be located against these different experiences. The same argument applies to the emergent middle class, with their faith in enterprise and economic growth, and their adherence to a political ideology of participation, temperance, religion and education. Again the experience of hierarchy and exploitation in this class has a gender subtext.
Davidoff and Hall (1987) have written an impressive and powerful analysis of the emergence of industrial capitalism and the rise of the Victorian gender ideology in England from 1780-1850. Their history of the middle class may be characterized as feminist ethnography: it charts in extraordinary detail and scope the interaction of social institution, social practice, ideology and gender. Their argument is that the rise of capitalism paralleled new forms of restraining women, that consciousness of class and relations of production and consumption were intrinsically gendered. They have also investigated the sexual ideology of early Victorian middle class discourse, as tension between subordination and celebration. What we need is a comparable study of both the middle class and the working class in early Australia. Desley Deacon (1989) has begun an analysis of the ambiguities in the concept of women's proper place and concluded that the limits of women's sphere were negotiable. But we need to find out whether the tensions noticed by Davidoff and Hall in the negotiation of sexual and class ideology were re-affirmed in the Australian experience. Or whether an understanding of our culture as framed and constructed by racial conflict so changes the dimensions of experience that English categories are not helpful.
As Susan Sheridan (1990) has commented, does the fact that Australia has a settler or Kriol culture, or a colonial experience of metropolitan British culture construct new images of femininity and masculinity because the closure, absence, dislocation and experience of oppression are different? This is Kay Schaffer's point in Women and the Bush put another way: as a reading of one dimension of the gendered experience of Australian culture, she has argued for an Australian culture opposed against the natural world: the imposition of culture against and through people and place.
To return to Michèle Le Doeuff, her argument about the exclusion of the feminine in philosophic discourse as the way philosophy dialectically defines itself, leaves us with an interesting question about reading women's writing as feminine. Le Doeuff defines this feminine other as the writing of rhetoric, seductive discourse, inconclusive syllogism, occultism and the mystic, writing by analogical reasoning, and arguments from authority. She hastens to add that these techniques of writing do not imply that there is some essential women's voice that needs to be liberated from women's writing in the past end present because it is a constructed other that belongs to the fantasy world of masculine discourse (1987, 194) But this is not to say that we, and the women writers we read, do not recognise and experience the construction of a feminine other, and our strategies for subversion and negotiation around it, and that this gendered experience of discourse is not produced by the social and political experience of the historical moment in time.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Ideology and Culture: Towards Feminist Cultural History. Contributors: Paddle, Sarah - Author. Journal title: Hecate. Volume: 17. Issue: 1 Publication date: May 31, 1991. Page number: 7. © 1999 Hecate Press. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.