Academic journal article New Formations

'Stealing Silk Is My Delight': Gaetan Gatian De Clerambault and the Sexual Politics of Poststructuralist Feminism

Academic journal article New Formations

'Stealing Silk Is My Delight': Gaetan Gatian De Clerambault and the Sexual Politics of Poststructuralist Feminism

Article excerpt

Contemporary practices of literary criticism unreflectively reiterate distinctive propositions about subjectivity deriving from a long tradition of idealist philosophy. It is a tradition of thinking predicated on a splitting of the mind from the body to enable the philosophical subject to transcend death by disavowing the material object world. In the sphere of literary and cultural theory, the consequent dualism may articulate itself in one of two familiar accounts of representation whose mutual contradiction obscures an identical structural logic. When idealist philosophy assigns representation to the side of matter as against the immaterial mind, the result is that venerable repudiation of representation that we might trace back, for example through sixteenth-century Puritanism and eighth-century Byzantine iconoclasm, to the Judaic proscription of images and the Platonic critique of art. Alternatively, idealist thought may express its mind/body dualism by seeking to wrest representation away from the mortal world of matter, in which case the signifier must be purified of the contaminating traces of the referent: over the past four decades this latter account has achieved near-hegemonic authority across a variety of poststructuralist theoretical positions.

Recent years have seen the development of significant new literary-critical identities, and few scholars today would call themselves 'poststructuralist,' but the idealist legacy perpetuates itself in much contemporary scholarship because critics have neglected to examine the ontological politics of the most basic theoretical assumptions that inform their work. Unwittingly indebted to a tradition of immaterial mind, literary and cultural theorists have addressed a new range of material topics while remaining quixotically loyal to idealist models of language. Thus, even as 'Thing Theory' has achieved considerable critical influence, and 'the body' has become a subject of such fashionable ubiquity that it has already begun to seem outmoded, critics who have sought to re-engage with the question of material life have found themselves ambivalently insisting on the illusory, evanescent, or at best intermittent quality of its presence in texts. Against this habit of thought, I want to argue that the absence of the referent from the signifier is the ideological product of a particular religious and philosophical tradition: it is not a necessary truth about the structure and interpretation of human subjectivities and their representations, and its unexamined authority may damage our capacity to recognise the presence of the referent and its symbolic valences alike.

I want to approach these large claims by way of the reception by late twentieth- and early twenty-first century Anglophone scholarship of Gaetan Gatian de Clerambault's work on shoplifting in fin-de-siecle Parisian department stores. De Clerambault (1872-1934) was a respected French psychiatrist whose research made a significant impact on early twentieth -century psychiatry: 'through his concept of mental automatism,' Joan Copjec writes, '[he] completely revised our notion of psychosis and disassembled the category of effort or will upon which the study of the psyche had been based since the beginning of the nineteenth century'. (1) His interests were heterogeneous and wide-ranging; an expert on the history of clothing constructed through practices of drapery, de Clerambault lectured on the topic at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the early 1920s and built up a large collection of photographs showing adults and children enveloped in voluminous North African dress. This photographic collection was the subject of Joan Copjec's article 'The Sartorial Superego' which first brought de Clerambault to the attention of Anglophone literary theory in 1989. In 1993, two essays were published exploring de Clerambault's papers on female shoplifters and the 'erotic passion' that drove them to steal silk from department stores: Leslie Camhi's 'Stealing Femininity: Department Store Kleptomania as Sexual Disorder' and Jann Matlock's 'Masquerading Women, Pathological Men: Cross-Dressing, Fetishism, and the Theory of Perversion, 1882-1935'. …

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