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Monday, November 14, 2011

Women reading, Theory, [Selective] Reflexivity and Forced Readings

"The idea of changing or improving the world is alien to me and seems ludicrous. Society functions, and always has, without the artist. No artist has ever changed anything for better or worse." - Georg Baselitz

***

This is quite funny (in more than one way):

"Virginia Woolf believed that a woman’s reading group was revolutionary; and in her edition of Virginia Woolf's Reading Notebooks, Brenda Silver describes a lifetime of intellectual and political obsession with reading and notetaking which belies the biographer’s portrait of a lady...

It seems pointless to argue whether women are better readers than men because of their receptiveness and openness to the text. What is important is that Woolf saw gender as determining the roles of writer, speaker, and reader and privileged the female versions of these acts as more democratic than the male. Given contemporary male critics’ descriptions of ravishing the text and deconstructionists' search for points of entry into the text, Woolf’s critical "still practice” as the enraptured reader, ego-less and open to the text rather than aggressively attacking it, is consistent with the goals of feminist philosophy. The reader’s desire to be enraptured by the writer, which Woolf celebrates, is very different from contemporary criticism’s assertion of intellectual superiority over writers and books. It is difficult to imagine an American formalist deconstructive critic being laid low by a book. Woolf’s imagined embrace of the common reader and the common writer comes from a desire for shared pleasure.

It is by the use of obscurantist language and labelling that formalist critics batter the text and bury it. They assert their egos and insult their own readers by making them feel ignorant. Much as they criticize anti-intellectual bourgeois society, they add to the contempt for art and thought by alienating readers even further. Their jargon, the hieroglyphics of a self-appointed priesthood, makes reading seem far more difficult than it is. In an age of declining literacy, it seems suicidal for the supposed champions of arts and letters to attack and incapacitate readers.

The language of current theoretical writing is a thicket of brambles; the reader must aggressively fight her way into it, emerging shaken and scratched. Those survivors in the central clearing congratulate themselves on being there. Everyone on the other side of the bushes is a coward or an intellectual weakling. Bleeding and exhausted from their struggle, they invent a new hierarchy, with theorists at the top, vying to be scientists and philosophers. Literary criticism and theory are somehow tougher and more rigorous than other forms of literary study. It is an ironic turn of events when one declares that a socialist feminist criticism should defend its old enemies, the very bibliographers, editors, textual scholars, biographers, and literary historians who wrote women writers out of history to begin with. But without the survival of these skills and the appropriation of them, women will again lose the history of their own culture. Theory is necessary and useful but is not superior to other literary practice or immune to historical forces. In fact, despite its birth in the left-wing beds of Europe, it has grown in practice to be an arrogant apolitical American adolescent with too much muscle and a big mouth. As the theorists constrict the world of readers and writers to ever tinier elites, the socialist feminist critic must reach out to expand and elasticize that world to include the illiterate, the watchers of television, the readers of romances, the participants in oral cultures—in short, our students...

I agree with Gayatn Spivak that our marginality is important—but there is very little room in the margins when that space has been claimed by Marxists and theorists of all stripes. With all this jostling in the margins, who is in the center?...

Shari Benstock challenges us: “Feminist criticism must be willing to pose the question of the differences within women’s writing. . . . Feminist criticism must be a radical critique not only of women’s writing but of women’s critical writing.” She calls for us to “inscribe the authority of our own experience” (147) and to question the assumptions of that authority. I am not sure that Shari Benstock realizes how dangerous this project can be. My own career began with such critiques of feminist criticism and I have concluded that years of joblessness were a direct result of that practice.’ Old girl networks exist; hierarchy is imposed and some feminist journals have “better” reputations than others. Star feminist critics perform their acts on platforms all over the country. The only difference is that we like what they have to say, and fall asleep less easily than at a male critic’s lecture. One feminist critic says that she would not have the “hubris” to criticize Gilbert and Gubar, It is not hubris but a pledge to our collective future as practicing critics to point out differences in theory and practice. I am sure that Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar would be the first to insist that such sisterly criticisms of their work be offered, for they continue to write, to grow, and to change. If feminist criticism has taught us anything, it has taught us to question authority, each other’s as well as our oppressors’. There are some cases in which theorists ignore scholarship at their peril.
[Ed: I am compiled to add here that we all know what would happen to a male critic]

Benstock assumes a willingness on the part of feminist critics to change their practice, which may be as utopian as my wish for a historically sound, materially based, theoretically brilliant socialist feminist criticism I assure her that several of my feminist colleagues, who agree with my analysis, have nevertheless urged me to delete sorne of the following remarks...

In “Unmaking and Making in To the Lighthouse,” Gayatri Spivak places a Derridean box over the text and crushes and squeezes everything to fit. Like Cinderella’s stepsister cutting off a piece of her foot to fit the glass slipper, this technique distorts the text. Derrida’s notion of sexual difference includes only male and female and cannot encompass Woolf’s celebration of celibacy in Lily Briscoe. So the text is distorted to allow Spivak to see Lily’s painting as analogous to gestation, where she uses Mr, Ramsey as an agent to complete the painting. That the text actually exults in Lily’s refusal of Mr. Ramsey is ignored. The sexual and grammatical Derridean allegory of the copula in which the painting is the predicate of Mrs. Ramsay, imposes a male structure on female text which simply does not fit. The biographical reading of the “Time Passes” section as Woolf’s “madness” depends entirely on Quentin Bell and is not only not an accurate picture of Woolf’s mental states, but far from feminist criticism. The footnotes do not cite a single feminist reading of Woolf...

These critics deny the authority of the female text. By taking father-guides to map the labyrinth of the female text, they deny the motherhood of the author of the text. These readings reinforce patriarchal authority. By reading Woolf through Foucault, Kamuf names Foucault’s critique of the history of sexuality as more powerful than Woolf’s. Reading Woolf through Derrida, Spivak serves patriarchy by insisting on a heterosexuality which the novel attacks by privileging chastity in the woman artist. The critic takes a position which is daughter to the father, not daughter to the mother. Is Woolf so frightening to the female critic, are her proposals so radical, that she must provide herself with a male medium through whom to approach the text? What they seem unable to accept is their own daughterhood as critics to Woolf’s role as the mother of socialist feminist criticism. One of the major points of A Room of One’s Own is the clear injunction to the audience of female students to avoid male mentors, the assertion with the story of Oscar Browning that the British academic world is a male homosexual hegemony which needs to deny women to stay in power."

--- Still Practice, A/Wrested Alphabet / Toward a Feminist Aesthetic / Jane Marcus in Feminist issues in literary scholarship


Incidentally, I found this by trying to find the context of the quote about unending critique that can lead to: "a picture of the world so relentlessly bleak that in the end, criticism itself comes to seem pointless".

Everyone cites this as coming from David Graeber's 2001 “Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value”, but it doesn't seem to appear inside.
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