Spectacular Confessions: "How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed." (Essay) (Djuna Barnes)

By Green, Barbara | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Spectacular Confessions: "How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed." (Essay) (Djuna Barnes)


Green, Barbara, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


Throughout much of her career Djuna Barnes was engaged in performative journalism, staging sensationalistic events for public consumption, writing interviews with celebrities.1 In one of these pieces, a description of the experience of being "saved" by firemen, Barnes made a provocative claim: "I was a |movie.'" This claim points us to a canny and complex exhibitionism at work in her performative journalism, most visible in her piece on the rebellious female body, "How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed."(2) This essay is positioned at the intersection of performative journalism and feminist activism and blends the discursive strategies of the celebrity interview with those of the militant suffrage movement's polemical texts. Published in 1914 in the New York World Magazine among sensationalistic stories of escape, intrigue, and pages devoted to feminine culture, this essay is presented, in part, as entertainment. The text, however, continually refers to another feminine arena, not of sensuality or sensationalism, but of militant struggle, feminist anger, and unladylike behavior.(3)

Barnes's deeply conflicted essay points in two directions. First, this essay restages and rereads the celebrity interviews of Barnes's early journalistic career, foregrounding the problem of the woman who looks. Many of Barnes's texts written between 1913 and 1915 depict the celebrity interview as a perilous encounter dominated by scoptic investigations that code exploration and speculation as masculine. Far from exhibiting the feminine discourse of gossip, these interviews are staged as difficult inspections and interrogations. Second, "How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed" reworks the discourse of forcible feeding generated during the British suffrage movement by foregrounding the figure of the woman who speaks from the body in pain, and examining that figure as a problem in systems of representation and in feminist discourse. Barnes's essay points to the difficult nature of a transformative politics that depends on the display and narration of the feminist body. In the following pages, I will locate Barnes's essay "How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed" in relation to the celebrity interviews Barnes conducted between 1913 and 1915 and in relation to a distinct subgenre of feminist writing, the narrative of forcible feeding. Both of these paths will lead us to what I term Barnes's "spectacular confession." I mean the term "spectacular confession" to indicate the ways in which feminist confessional gestures that display the female body for radical purposes are entangled with, and complicated by, a structure of representation that positions the female body as silent, passive, spectacular. The phrase "spectacular confession" brings together image and text, specular relations and autobiographical confessions, so that the disruptive effects of the woman who speaks from the body become visible. Before engaging in a reading of Barnes's text as spectacular confession, I will sketch out the particular historical event Barnes's text recalls - the forcible feeding of British suffragettes.

Between the years 1905 and 1914 the militant Women's Social and Political Union produced a constant stream of images of feminine protest as part of the struggle to win the vote.(4) Under the leadership of Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragettes represented themselves as a serious political force through both peaceful and militant means: both the artistic production of pageants, marches, posters, and banners and the subversive strategies of rock-throwing and female interruptions of male speech and male space depended on the female body for persuasive force. Feminist theorists engaged in studies of the British suffrage movement have turned our attention in important ways to these visual images of the female body - Lisa Tickner in The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign 1907-14 has traced the "spectacle of woman" in suffrage artistry, and Jane Marcus in "The Asylums of Antaeus: Women, War and Madness - is There a Feminist Fetishism? …

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