Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Gendered Time in Erotic Narrative: Finishing Power vs. Staying Power

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Gendered Time in Erotic Narrative: Finishing Power vs. Staying Power

Article excerpt

Feminist critics have good reason to be suspicious of erotic narrative as a genre, precisely because it represents the erotic as something eminently tellable. No matter how refined or subtle the variations, it always seems to be the same old story: men doing things to women's bodies. Or rather, men repeatedly doing the same thing. This is how Andrea Dworkin describes the display of male power:

the power of sex manifested in action, attitude, culture, and attribute

is the exclusive province of the male, his domain, inviolate

and sacred. Sex, a word potentially so inclusive and evocative, is

whittled down by the male so that, in fact, it means penile

intromission. Commonly referred to as "it," sex is defined as action

only by what the male does with his penis. [... ] "The sex act" means

penile intromission followed by penile thrusting, or fucking. The

woman is acted on; the man acts and through action expresses

sexual power, the power of masculinity.(1)

Possession, in this context, is not so much a social or economic condition as an act, indeed the act by which power is manifested. To tell the act is to rehearse and confirm the sexual oppression of women.

Having identified pornography's tyrannous narrative, what can feminist criticism do in response to it? That may be seen by some as a simply political question, requiring an activist's answer. But there is a broadly semiotic question somehow attached to the political one: what kind of power can be represented as feminine, in the face of male power? If we suppose, with Foucault and Gadamer, that discursive positions cannot simply be invented, but must be sustained by talk that is already functioning, already in play, then the semiotic is in some sense political. It becomes appropriate to ask what forms of discourse, or what empowering themes, if any, are made available to women through the dominant tradition categorized as erotic literature. The quick answer may be that women are left speechless, quite deprived of power by the doings of men. "Dans la scene pornographique," says Irigaray, "je n'ai rien a dire."(2) Yet, as we shall soon see in the case of Irigaray's own writing, there may be a feminist response to pornography that reclaims and exploits the standard, almost liturgical "responses" of women characters in those old stories. I shall attempt to show, in fact, that there are two kinds of feminine power (and thus at least two options for a feminist discursive politics) inscribed in or around traditional erotic narrative. There are the power to call a halt, and the power to go on indefinitely: stopping power and staying power.

Even as Dworkin seeks to dismiss pornography, and to bring about the end of the genre by polemical and legislative means -- "We will know that we are free when the pornography no longer exists." (224) -- she does not claim to be acting in a radically unprecedented manner. Indeed the antecedents that she points to in passing are precisely forms of resistance akin to her own: For centuries, female reluctance to "have sex," female dislike of "sex," female frigidity, female avoidance of "sex," have been legendary. This has been the silent rebellion of women against the force of the penis, generations of women as one with their bodies, chanting in a secret language, unintelligible even to themselves, a contemporary song of freedom: I will not be moved. (56)

Represented in fiction, the successful conduct of such a "silent rebellion" might be regarded as an exercise in stopping power. It could signify, locally at least, the cessation of amorous activity and the avoidance of its proper outcome as defined by the male, the woman abstaining from his erotic program, refusing to take her place in it and refusing to take her pleasure in the due course of narrative. Such abstention is quite other in its narrative effects than some hypothetical boycott: it is a form of struggle, and a source of plot. …

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