Barbara Johnson, “The Feminist Difference”

1998

Feminism is no longer one thing, Johnson begins. It speaks multivocally and with contradictions. “Double consciousness” in W.E.B. DuBois’ terms is made into a political problem when Freud puts “race” in quotation marks. In the complex interweaving of culture, gender, race, class, and psychoanalysis, “literature is important for feminism because literature can best be understood as the place where impasses can be kept and opened for examination… as a mode of cultural work” 13.

Johnson first examines Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Freud’s “Case of Hysteria” as locations of the figure (the outline or form, for Kant) and ground (the attention, or content, for de Beauvoir). The girl who is the “blank page” in Irigaray is here imagined as the “background” or “negative space” (think of Woolf’s Lily Briscoe). Psychoanalysis would like to suture subject and background neatly. In Hawthorne, the background changes, while the mark remains constant – their relation changes because the background does. In Gilman, the girl creates a form out of the texture of the background (wallpaper). The cost of achieving “definitive femininity” in Freud’s terms is the subject of both stories. What these texts engender is a coda in which the author or narrator steps back as reader to interpret the work. But the image of the body as “blank page implies that the woman’s body is white” 35. The problem of the black woman in American literature is one of Topsy having no origin and Dilsey having no end.

In “Muteness Envy,” Johnson considers Keats’ urn as a silent woman – “thou still unravished bride of quietness.” The chiasmus “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is a cancelling silence as well. The moment of the poem is the freezing right before “ravishing” – rape or ecstasy, we cannot be sure. Women are silent about pleasure or violation, Johnson argues. She reads the silence of Campion’s film The Piano as productive precisely because it can be read as rape or pleasure – it elicits polarized opinions. Feminism disrupts not because it speaks where women should be silent, but because it introduces an interference with male self-pity, which keeps attention and interest on the subjects, rather than the objects, of patriarchy.

In “The Postmodern in Feminism,” Johnson turns to semantics. Is postmodern a ‘good’ word? If postmodernism can be described by intense wordplay, decentered subjectivity, and language as social construction, we should consider in the postmodern era how legal language constructs women. In the indeterminacy of language, how can we speak of “women” if there “is uncertainty about what the word ‘woman’ means?” For Johnson, it is this very “incoherence of woman” that is “encountered in the engagement with the heterogeneity” of real women. Indeterminacy is the result of material existence, not the occlusion of it. She reiterates Cixous’ desire to stop talking of women in a reproduction of the binary in which “women are still standing facing men” 194. We must place difference among women, rather than between the genders, as if it were a war. The difficulty of this challenge constitutes the future of feminism.

 

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