Academic journal article Hecate

'Just One More Way of Talking about Books?'

Academic journal article Hecate

'Just One More Way of Talking about Books?'

Article excerpt



As Terry Eagleton informs us in his latest book, criticism has a function and it does not amount simply to several ways of talking about books. All these ways of talking intersect with a social practice. It is certainly true that anyone may talk about feminist criticism, but no-one can afford to examine any kind of criticism divorced from its socio-political context. Thus the three of us -- all women in the university, two tenured and one not, all from very different disciplines, yet all preparing courses for a women's studies major -- felt we had something to say about this book which purports to explain feminist criticism. Our general contention is that it also offers a distorted analysis of feminism itself, while not accepting the responsibility for doing so, and it is with this that we take issue.

1. Gendered Onamatology: Not what's in it but who does it

Feminist criticism...cannot leave unquestioned the assumption of power inherent in our critical practices.... By positing a reader as a subject engaged in a formal activity, textual criticism excludes the disembodied voice of some neutral, impartial, and absent speaker.

(Nelly Furman, "Textual Feminism".)(1)

If we look closely at the regulatory mechanisms which grow up around languages, it is clear that they are rather closely connected with the power structures of their society. The institutions that regulate language use in our own society, and indeed those of most societies, are deliberately oppressive to women. Men control them, not in the rather mystical sense that they are said to control meaning, by making esoteric semantic rules or possessing the vital signifier, but simply because it is the prerogative of those with economic and political power to set up and regulate important social institutions.

(Deborah Cameron, Feminism and Linguistic Theory.)(2)

If feminist practices did not make men uneasy they would, presumably, be failing in their task of interrogation and subversion. A few years ago, one of the standard prophylactic devices against feminist contamination was that of androgyny -- all friction between the sexes would be dissolved if people acknowledged their universal psychic bisexuality. Subsequently one heard a great deal about the `woman' (she was always singular) within man (anima), but not much at all about the man within women (animus). At the same time, women's material reality took very much of a back seat and, indeed, was rendered almost invisible within that rhetoric by anima role models. Female complementarity was the order of the day.

These days androgyny has been replaced by `gender'. Thus, in Professor Ken Ruthven's recent Feminist Literary Studies, the main task of feminist literary criticism is revealed:

Feminist criticism is a scanning device in this sense: it operates in the service of a new knowledge which is constructed by rendering visible the hitherto invisible component of `gender' in all discourse produced by the humanities and the social sciences.

The aim is to convince men that their criticism is never gender-free and universal: when they think and write they do so as men, and not as representatives of the human species.(3)

Unfortunately, feminist critics are not performing this task terribly well ("the theory is more impressive than some of the practices", p. 9), and in actual fact it had best be left to men since they have less to lose. Now although it is acknowledged that feminist criticism has politicised men's writing (but not women's? p. 1), this survey doesn't have very much to say concerning the criteria for selection and exclusion which animate its own practices. Indeed, that this is a selection of feminist critics is never addressed.

And what other unreflexive assumptions do we find? (`We'?) While registering the fact Shat feminist criticism exhorts men to be visible in any discursive field, including that of literary criticism, the author himself remains invisible. …

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