Betty Friedan, “The Feminine Mystique”


Betty Friedan’s book, released in 1963, is often credited as a catalyst for second-wave American feminism. Almost 15 years after de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Friedan approaches the problem of sexism through the lens of midcentury American consumer culture: television, advertising, education, pop psychoanalysis, and housewifery. In a wonderfully 50s moment, she concludes the book by asserting that

“the energy locked up in these obsolete masculine and feminine roles is the social equivalent of the physical energy locked up in the realm of E=MC2 – the force that unleashed the holocaust of Hiroshima. I believe the locked-up sexual energies have helped to fuel, more than anyone realizes, the terrible violence erupting in the nation and the world during these past ten years. If I am right, the sex-role revolution will liberate these energies from the service of death and will make it really possible for men and women to ‘make love, not war'” 532.

Of course this did not occur (Linda Williams investigates the inefficacy of the ‘make love, not war’ slogan in Screening Sex), but Friedan’s text may well have helped to unleash a sexual revolution whose effects were indeed far-ranging. Friedan’s setting is a 1950s America where girls dye their hair blonde and eat chalk to appeal to men, where women break down if they cannot breastfeed because their identities are so bound to young motherhood 59. Friedan identifies women as the victims of their own consumer power, the endlessness of which constantly promises fulfillment and never delivers, producing instead “the problem that has no name” 57. The popularity of psychoanalysis “cracked the door” into the potentially unhappy lives of housewives and the anxiety of unmarried women, too.

The world of images offered to women are fluffy, crammed with color, food, fashion, and sexual pursuit of men, but “where is the world of thought and ideas, the life of the mind and spirit?” 83. In part, it is sublimated into housewifery, as magazine headlines like “Cooking is Poetry to Me” and “The Business of Running a Home” suggest 93. While the heroines of the 30s were strong, young, and gay, those of postwar America are gender-circumscribed and vapid.

“The feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity… so mysterious and intuitive and close to the creation and origin of life that man-made science may never be able to understand it… The mistake, says the mystique, the root of women’s troubles in the past is that women envied men, women tried to be like men, instead of accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love” 92.

The madonna/whore complex is reinscribed as the mother/career girl divide 95. Even female writers and editors contributed to the problem out of a sense of guilt and loss 109.

Friedan claims that this is the result of the “troubles of the image-makers” trapped in the “frantic race” of capitalism, which “force[s] the men who make the images to see women only as thing-buyers” 119. In making women mindless and bored, consumer society is also having more trouble selling to them. This push to sell means that the manipulators are guilty of using their insights to sell women things which, no matter how ingenious, will never satisfy… They are guilty of persuading housewives to stay at home, mesmerized in front of a television set” 326. (One of the most insidious ads she cites, the famous Clairol “Does she or doesn’t she?” was actually written by a woman, Shirley Polykoff.) Women are told that they are running a business, for which they must continue to buy specialized supplies. They stretch housework that should take a few hours to great lengths of time, since their sense of self rests on the illusion that they are needed at home, working full-time.

Friedan also critiques Freud for what she feels is his misogyny – his relegation of women as inferior beings complementary to men (the One, etc.). She also holds that directing all of women’s desire to sexuality and homemaking has bred a generation of sexually potent but frustrated women. If sex is the only thing left to make women “feel alive,” what happens then? (She mentions Lolita on 383- the redirection of male energy to less demanding sex objects than wives, who now expect too much from sex.) Thus, she theorizes (it sounds as nuts now as her concluding paragraph) that women are oversexed, men are cheating, and boys are homosexuals because of the pent-up energies of housewives 385. Friedan’s concern is with the children who then go on to marry young and have children: “the tragedy of children acting out the sexual phantasies of their housewife-mothers” as “one sign of the progressive dehumanization that is taking place” 392.

In the hyperbolically titled “The Comfortable Concentration Camp,” Friedan explores the problems of the arrested development of these young women – they are weak, undereducated, and lack a sense of self, which they have sacrificed to the family and to consumer ideology. She ends by advocating that colleges and places of work accommodate maternity leave, hire pregnant women, etc. In a society where women are functional and intellectual equals,

“The split image will be healed, and daughters will not face that jumping-off point at twenty-one or forty-one… they will not have to ‘beat themselves down’ to be feminine; they can stretch and stretch until their own efforts will tell them who they are… And when women do not need to live through their husbands and children, men will not fear the love and strength of women, nor need another’s weakness to prove their own masculinity… the time is at hand when the voices of the feminine mystique can no longer drown out the inner voice that is driving women on to become complete” 512.

I copy the Wikipedia summary below to save myself some of the structural summarizing of this long and detailed text:

Chapter 1: Friedan points out that the average age of marriage was dropping and the birthrate was increasing for women throughout the 1950s, yet the widespread unhappiness of women persisted, although American culture insisted that fulfillment for women could be found in marriage and housewifery; this chapter concludes by declaring, “We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.'”

Chapter 2: Friedan shows that the editorial decisions concerning women’s magazines were being made mostly by men, who insisted on stories and articles that showed women as either happy housewives or unhappy, neurotic careerists, thus creating the “feminine mystique”—the idea that women were naturally fulfilled by devoting their lives to being housewives and mothers. Friedan notes that this is in contrast to the 1930s, at which time women’s magazines often featured confident and independent heroines, many of whom were involved in careers.

Chapter 3: Friedan recalls her own decision to conform to society’s expectations by giving up her promising career in psychology to raise children, and shows that other young women still struggled with the same kind of decision. Many women dropped out of school early to marry, afraid that if they waited too long or became too educated, they would not be able to attract a husband.

Chapter 4: Friedan discusses early American feminists and how they fought against the assumption that the proper role of a woman was to be solely a wife and mother. She notes that they secured important rights for women, including education, the right to pursue a career, and the right to vote.

Chapter 5: Friedan, who had a degree in psychology, criticizes Sigmund Freud (whose ideas were very influential in America at the time of her book’s publication). She notes that Freud saw women as childlike and as destined to be housewives, once pointing out that Freud wrote, “I believe that all reforming action in law and education would break down in front of the fact that, long before the age at which a man can earn a position in society, Nature has determined woman’s destiny through beauty, charm, and sweetness. Law and custom have much to give women that has been withheld from them, but the position of women will surely be what it is: in youth an adored darling and in mature years a loved wife.” Friedan also points out that Freud’s unproven concept of “penis envy” had been used to label women who wanted careers as neurotic, and that the popularity of Freud’s work and ideas elevated the “feminine mystique” of female fulfillment in housewifery into a “scientific religion” that most women were not educated enough to criticize. [vs. Barbara Johnson’s argument]

Chapter 6: Friedan criticizes functionalism, which attempted to make the social sciences more credible by studying the institutions of society as if they were parts of a social body, as in biology. Institutions were studied in terms of their function in society, and women were confined to their sexual biological roles as housewives and mothers as well as being told that doing otherwise would upset the social balance. Friedan points out that this is unproven and that Margaret Mead, a prominent functionalist, had a flourishing career as an anthropologist.

Chapter 7: Friedan discusses the change in women’s education from the 1940s to the early 1960s, in which many women’s schools concentrated on non-challenging classes that focused mostly on marriage, family, and other subjects deemed suitable for women, as educators influenced by functionalism felt that too much education would spoil women’s femininity and capacity for sexual fulfillment. Friedan says that this change in education arrested girls in their emotional development at a young age, because they never had to face the painful identity crisis and subsequent maturation that comes from dealing with many adult challenges.

Chapter 8: Friedan notes that the uncertainties and fears during World War II and the Cold War made Americans long for the comfort of home, so they tried to create an idealized home life with father as the breadwinner and mother as the housewife. Friedan notes that this was helped along by the fact that many of the women who worked during the war filling jobs previously filled by men faced dismissal, discrimination, or hostility when the men returned, and that educators blamed over-educated, career-focused mothers for the maladjustment of soldiers in World War II. Yet as Friedan shows, later studies found that overbearing mothers, not careerists, were the ones who raised maladjusted children.

Chapter 9: Friedan shows that advertisers tried to encourage housewives to think of themselves as professionals who needed many specialized products in order to do their jobs, while discouraging housewives from having actual careers, since that would mean they would not spend as much time and effort on housework and therefore would not buy as many household products, cutting into advertisers’ profits.

Chapter 10: Friedan interviews several full-time housewives, finding that although they are not fulfilled by their housework, they are all extremely busy with it. She postulates that these women unconsciously stretch their home duties to fill the time available, because the feminine mystique has taught women that this is their role, and if they ever complete their tasks they will become unneeded.

Chapter 11: Friedan notes that many housewives have sought fulfillment in sex, unable to find it in housework and children; Friedan notes that sex cannot fulfill all of a person’s needs, and that attempts to make it do so often drive married women to have affairs or drive their husbands away as they become obsessed with sex.

Chapter 12: Friedan discusses the fact that many children have lost interest in life or emotional growth, attributing the change to the mother’s own lack of fulfillment, a side effect of the feminine mystique. When the mother lacks a self, Friedan notes, she often tries to live through her children, causing the children to lose their own sense of themselves as separate human beings with their own lives.

Chapter 13: Friedan discusses Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and notes that women have been trapped at the basic, physiological level, expected to find their identity through their sexual role alone. Friedan says that women need meaningful work just as men do to achieve self-actualization, the highest level on the hierarchy of needs.

Chapter 14: In the final chapter of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan discusses several case studies of women who have begun to go against the feminine mystique. She also advocates a new life plan for her women readers, including not viewing housework as a career, not trying to find total fulfillment through marriage and motherhood alone, and finding meaningful work that uses their full mental capacity. She discusses the conflicts that some women may face in this journey to self-actualization, including their own fears and resistance from others. For each conflict, Friedan offers examples of women who have overcome it. Friedan ends her book by promoting education and meaningful work as the ultimate method by which American women can avoid becoming trapped in the feminine mystique, calling for a drastic rethinking of what it means to be feminine, and offering several educational and occupational suggestions.

Shoshanna Felman, “What Does A Woman Want?”


Felman wonders whether feminists can reclaim Freud’s famous question in a letter to Marie Bonaparte: “What does a woman want?” The question is always male – a bemusement in the face of women’s resistance to their place in patriarchy, but can it be reclaimed? If so, what are its affordances? In examining the male texts of Balzac and Freud, Felman sees a common fascination with female resistance – to be appropriated, interpreted, or recognized.

Felman tells the story of how Simone de Beauvoir began The Second Sex not as a feminist, but as a woman situating herself, first through the eyes of others, then through her own eyes. de Beauvoir tells Sartre that she became a feminist less through writing than through the existence of her book in a community of women around the world. This idea of becoming a woman, becoming a feminist, is vital to Johnson. It is also, as Rich says, a re-vision of the past.

Felman’s chapter on Freud begins with Juliet Mitchell’s argument that Freudian psychoanalysis is not sexist. Felman agrees that psychoanalysis has a number of useful valences for feminist reflection, but does not think Freud is immune from mistakes and oversights that can be critiqued through a feminist lens. Ultimately, she argues that femininity is “the navel of psychoanalysis: a nodal point of significant resistance in the text of the ongoing psychoanalytic dream of understanding; a navel that, though ‘unplumbable,’ is also positively… [the] ‘point of contact with the unknown’… dynamic play… with its own self-difference” 120.

In the final chapter, Felman considers Woolf, de Beauvoir, and Rich as “autobiographers.” She begins by claiming the Interpretation of Dreams as Freud’s own autobiography. Freud’s value is of “a structure of address inclusive of its otherness,” but she begins to turn in her own autobiographical consideration away from men entirely. Like Woolf, she attempts to correct this: she is speaking to women with the knowledge that she is being overheard – she wants to make room for men, too (like A Room of One’s Own). Rich first accuses Woolf of an oversight in this sense. Felman encourages us to “read autobiographically,” “giving testimony to the unsuspected, unexpected ‘feminine resistance’ in the text” 133. It is a practice of “experiencing this feminine resistance as a joint effect of interaction among literature, autobiography, and theory, insofar as all three modes resist, precisely, one another” 133. Thus we must read ourselves with theory’s tools as a resistance to theory – a similar formulation as art and autonomy for Adorno.

Felman points out that in Rich’s famous poem, “Diving Into the Wreck,” the speaker says, “I am he, I am she,” breaking down the very binary that Rich uses to resist Woolf’s address. The poetry is “autobiography and resistance to autobiography,” as Woolf’s is as well, and as Felman notes, de Beauvoir’s too. Woolf’s way to autobiography is via the detour of fiction – she cannot be named in A Room of One’s Own – she is “Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please.” (This indeterminacy is also like Rich.) Thus Woolf births her own autobiographer – Mary – who allows her to look back to her mother and mother’s mother and Judith Shakespeare, and forward to the future as well. The “splitting of consicousness” she describes, also characteristic of Emily Dickinson and Doris Lessing, is genealogical as well as personal, then. The real child of Woolf’s autobiography is the “writer’s certainty” that things will be better in 100 years.

Barbara Johnson, “The Feminist Difference”


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.


bell hooks, “Ain’t I a Woman”


hooks’ text takes its title from a speech given in 1851 by Sojourner Truth. hooks explains the way in which the convergence of racism and sexism placed black women on the bottom of the social ladder in every sense (think Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God). By disentangling race and gender, hooks’ text opens onto an important critical turn in identity politics. hooks begins with slavery, exploring how its tropes and stereotypes survive to this day (for example, the way the division of woman into madonna/whore is often drawn along white/black racial lines, displacing the negative quality onto black women alone).

hooks notes that scholarship has talked about slavery as though it only had psychic effects on black men, emasculating them. Instead, hooks argues that slavery masculinized black women by forcing them to do hard labor like men. Furthermore, she points out that while white men raped black women, so did black men – they were not their advocates, but often also their aggressors in a social world where family ties were severed by slave owners. Both were involved in the dehumanizing practices of “breeding” that characterized enforced sexual culture in slavery. “By completely accepting the female role as defined by patriarchy, enslaved black women embraced and upheld an oppressive sexist social order and became (along with their white sisters) both accomplices in the crimes perpetrated against women and the victims of those crimes” 49.

While the black power and civil rights movements were largely patriarchal, asking black women to erase their gender in the service of black male interests, white feminism was not concerned to articulate the needs of poor women and women of color. White feminists overlook the rape of black women as stemming from the image of their sexual “availability” in ways that are different from white women. Relatedly, white women who marry black men are seen as open minded, moving against a history of stereotypical “rape” of white women by black men, whereas black women suffer from both communities when they marry a white man, seen as allying themselves with a traitor. The two stereotypes available to black women are mammy and Sapphire – the first desexualized and maternal and happy, the other seductive, evil, and cunning. Both are characterized by the fear of appearing vulnerable (“available”).

hooks concludes her text by arguing not that black women should distance themselves from feminism because it is racist, but that feminism should distance itself from racism. Black women should reclaim the pioneering tradition of 19th century black feminists like Sojourner Truth for the problems of today.

Theodor Adorno, “Aesthetic Theory”


Adorno’s approach to aesthetics eschews the division between philosophy, methodology, and the subdisciplines of the arts he studies. (This reminds me of Deleuze & Guattari’s open approach.) The text sets up a dialectic between modern art and philosophical aesthetics, using each to reconstruct the other synthetically and historically. He called this mode of “paratactical presentation” (recall Pound’s ‘paratactical’ concatenated poetics, versus Williams’ more subordinated, ‘hypostatic,’ and vertical poetics) a mode of “atonal philosophy.”

Adorno questions whether art can survive in late capitalism (following on Hegel) and whether it can transform that world if it does survive (following on Marx). Adorno insists that if it does, it must retain “formal autonomy,” which Kant also insists on. However, he combines this formal element with one of content – Hegel’s insistence on “intellectual import” and Marx’s notion that art is “embedded” in society. Thus, paradoxically, the artwork must be autonomous, but that autonomy is always somewhat illusory. Modern art seeks to synthesize this paradox: it is “the social antithesis of society” 8.

“Authentic” works of modern art are “social monads” whose tensions express conflicts in the sociohistory from which they emerge. (In Leibniz’s terms, the monads have a sort of fractal logic – they are all a whole, but they are all also independent down the scale.) Recall that Marx, Benjamin, and Jameson, of course, also identify art as conditioned by means of production, and that, in a more tempered vein, Raymond Williams claimed that it would be as foolish to assume that a work of art could be completely free of its economic base of production as it would be to assume the opposite (its complete dependence). The tensions of these “social monads” enter the work through the artist’s struggle with the conditions of production (as materially bound as they are to history). For Adorno, this often causes works to be ‘misread.’ Adorno seeks to resolve some of these tensions, though it would be impossible to resolve them all in our current situation.

Most of the resolution of these contradictions occurs through polarities or pairs, in the dialectical fashion. Whereas hermeneutics would emphasize the import (Gehalt) of a work’s cultural meaning and empiricism would emphasize the causal relations inherent to the function (Funktion) of a work’s political purpose, Adorno wants to understand how these two categories relate to one another. The two categories can be opposed, united, or mixed in a work, but they inform each other. He generally falls in favor of Gehalt, however, stating that “Insofar as a social function can be predicated for artworks, it is their functionlessness” 227. Thus, Adorno favors art that is socially meaningful and socially mediated, rather than that created expressly for political service (he dislikes positivism and instrumentalized reason). Something of this resonates with Kant’s free beauty – a “purposiveness without purpose,” a beauty that exceeds function.

Art should not be merely aesthetic, even if the structures of capitalism will only strangle purely resistant art. Art must be independent and beautiful, not didactic, but also politically engaged. Thus art must work out its own internal contradictions so that the viewer/reader cannot ignore the “hidden” contradictions of society. This is why Adorno loves Beckett, whose work he finds the quintessence of this aesthetic, and to whom he dedicates the volume.

Adorno’s main focus is ultimately on the dialectical and nonpropositional “truth content” of art, in which Gehalt (import) is itself a dialectic between content and form. One can judge art’s internal and external truth content – its own dynamics as well as those of the sociohistory in which it was produced. Art looks to change but does not enact it: “Art has truth as the semblance of the illusionless” 132. Thus truth content is

“Not a metaphysical idea or essence hovering outside the artwork. But neither is it a merely human construct. It is historical but not arbitrary; nonpropositional, yet calling for propositional claims to be made about it; utopian in its reach, yet firmly tied to specific societal conditions. Truth content is the way in which an artwork simultaneously challenges the way things are and suggests how things could be better, but leaves things practically unchanged” [SEP]

Like Virginia Woolf, Adorno holds 1910 as the year when art set out toward “the inconceivable.” Art has lost its naivete and should no longer seek to offer solace. It must “turn against itself” and be self conscious. It attacks what has seemed to be its foundation. Art is what it has become – like Benjamin, Adorno believes it is fruitless to argue, then whether film is art. Art is both a part of its historical moment and supersedes it (Madame Bovary). Here are a couple of quotes I’d like to remember from the first chapter:

“The unsolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as immanent problems of form. This, not the insertion of objective elements, defines the relation of art to society. The complex of tensions in artworks crystallizes undisturbed in these problems of form and through emancipation from the external world’s factual facade converges with the real essence. Art… takes up a position to it in accord with Hegel’s argument against Kant: The moment a limit is posited, it is overstepped and that against which the limit was established is absorbed… Art is autonomous and it is not; without what is heterogenous to it, its autonomy eludes it” 6.

“Only dilettantes reduce everything in art to the unconscious, repeating cliches… the sharpest sense of reality was joined with estrangement from reality… If art has psychoanalytic roots, then they are the roots of fantasy in the fantasy of omnipotence” 9.

Where Freud sees art without distance, as wish fulfillment, Kant overstates this with distance, severing art from desire and fragmenting the subject 10.


Immanuel Kant, “Critique of the Power of Judgment”


Also called the third critique, this is where Kant lays out his idealist philosophies on the sublime and the beautiful. Following from Burke, Kant’s approach is much more disinterested, depersonalized, categorical, and universalizing. Kant’s a priori knowledge moves more by deduction than experience (Burke’s empiricism). His idea of the sensus communis translates its literal meaning – common sense – from the individual’s total capacity of bound faculties working together to produce judgment into a wider social realm, in which a disinterested and trained public could agree on questions of aesthetic taste.

Kant’s position is certainly one of a bourgeois, middle class individualist. Still, he opens himself for debate by inviting contestation and by asserting the self/social dynamic of the sensus communis. As with the categorical imperative, one cannot act or judge out of political interest – we must act as if a universal law exists. Aesthetics, as in Schiller, is a sort of training, preparatory work that predates political change. Kant thus advocated reform, rather than revolution.

In Kant, the object is always outside our understanding, and the subject of the treatise is the mind itself. Judgment is a sort of negation of the senses – almost an alchemical process like Eliot’s disinterestedness. In cognitive judgment, we transform the objects of the world, through mental representation, into determinate concepts via our highest faculty, reason (this is the sublime). In aesthetic judgment, we create a unified representation from the manifold, but can arrive only at a harmony of the imagination and the understanding, not a determinate concept shaped by reason (this is free beauty).

We move from the manifold (the senses or sensation) to the intuition (representations in the imagination) to the generation of concepts (understanding) to our highest faculty, that of our ides (reason). Our senses are at the level of nature, while our Reason is at the level of freedom, and we move osmotically up and down this ladder of mentality as we order the world around us.

One of the most fascinating subjects of Kant’s inquiry into the beautiful is the crustacean or the rare bird or tropical flower. Kant gives all of these as examples of things that exist as ornament or drawing, not as natural, or having entelec function (recall that Kant prioritized the bounding line of form over the filling color of content – think about this in terms of Blake’s drawings (line filled in later) versus Lily Briscoe’s painting in To the Lighthouse, which engages color before line and strict form, or The Waves, where the female characters see color and the boys see form).

My reading of this fascination is a relation to defamiliarization – free beauty is that which we cannot categorize, a novelty we cannot subsume (Lolita). Whereas adherent beauty seems to unite beauty and cognition, form and function, free beauty lies in an excess of form to its function. This reminds me of Nabokov’s theories on the chance excess of evolution – how butterflies are far more detailed in their colorful trickery of predators than their predators’ senses can sense. This is where Kant’s confusing distinction of “purposiveness without a purpose” might be explicable, at least to an extent.

In contrast to the beautiful, the sublime is a negative, rather than a positive, pleasure in Kant. Unlike Burke, beauty is above the sublime as experience for Kant. Beauty is contemplation, an (in)determinate concept at the realm of (imagination and) understanding, a spatial and static harmony, a purposive form or limitation. On the other hand, the sublime is a toggling between repulsion and attraction, a dynamic narrative of experience, an indeterminate concept at the level of reason, a contra-purposive with a limitless higher purpose. The mind is fitted to the beautiful; it is unsuited, at least initially, to the sublime. Here, the object is a springboard for the mind, which confronts something  either mathematical (a problem of quantity or greatness) or dynamic (a problem of threat or fear).

The experience of the sublime is one of regaining power over experience. In the mathematical, the mind uses what it already knows to overcome the problem, moving from a failure of imagination to a reasoning of the totality by a whole based on comprehensible units (concepts of space time for example. One wonders if, once conquered, such a concept transitions into beauty…) In the dynamic sublime, the solution is narrativization – one moves to a picture of the whole synthesized by the imagination in discourse. As the body is in danger, but not really, one learns that the power of nature does not have dominion over our power of reason. The distinction seems to be one of apprehension vs comprehension. The proper distance is required for the sublime.

Kant is implicitly defending defensive, but not offensive, war. This is bound to the value of Protestant individual/national concerns, rather than Catholic objective idol/ imperialist concerns for Kant. It would be interesting to compare his ideas on “formless” feeling to Bakhtin and the “formless” novel.



Elizabeth Abel, “Signs of the Times”


Abel argues that the “thickness” of the ostensibly black/white binary of Jim Crow semiotics was reinforced and complicated by visual signifiers outside the bounds of the two words white/colored. She begins with the asymmetry of signage, entrances, etc. – rarely were there two equally set-out choices in the interface.

“Driven by the opportunity and the urgency of narrowing the gap between a forgetful present and a shameful history, these entrees to the scene of inequality exploit the potential of their three-dimensional space to deliver the effect of immediacy, even as that effect is inevitably mediated by the terms of access to that space. Photography’s flat surface, by contrast, may be better suited to examining the effects of mediation to which its own existence inescapably bears witness” 2.

Abel looks at the photographic proof (1980) of an old “Colored Service” entrance sign painted on a wall in New Orleans as an approach to “America’s most obvious yet strangely invisible inscription of race as a network of signs” 4.

“These signs constitute a collective and flexible articulation whose dimensions were determined more by custom, taste, and convention than by law. The result was a sign system produced by many hands in a multiplicity of forms that emerged across a spectrum of geographic, economic, and political positions… Jim Crow signage gave race a graphic body that shaped the meaning of its abstract terms” 5.

Abel begins a later chapter by considering segregation and cinema, beginning with Baudry’s insistence on the disembodying effect of the apparatus. Abel argues that the positioning of the segregated spectator (in the balcony) enables him to see the other spectators, to throw popcorn on them – disturbs this suture. Discomfort and an awareness of the audience above, too, waxed and waned according to which film was being shown, and where.

Ultimately, she advocates a “third way” – neither effacing it with multiculturalism or color-blindness, but “reading the traces of these signs in order to displace them” 300.

Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar, “Sexual Linguistics”


“Is anatomy linguistic destiny? Is womb a metaphorical mouth, a pen a metaphorical penis?” the authors begin.

“From Freud to Lacan to Derrida on the one hand, and from Woolf to Irigaray to Cixous on the other, masculinist and feminist theorists alike have toyed with the idea of a culturally determined body language which translates the articulations of the body into that body of articulated terminology we call language” 515.

“If language is a process of cultural artifiice that both distances and defines nature, then it would seem that its workings might well embody the bodily differences through which each human being first confronts the fundamental sexuality of his or her own nature… as Julia Kristeva puts it, ‘Sexual difference – which is at once biological, physiological, and relative to production – is translated by and translates a difference in the relationship of subjects to the symbolic contract which is the social contract: a difference, then, in the relationship to power, language, and meaning” 515-16.

Gilbert and Gubar seek to interrogate this psychologically and historically – through the primacy of the mother in the ‘symbolic contract’ and through a tradition of female writing that belies the idea that the feminine does not appear in common language. “The female subject is not necessarily alienated from the words she writes and speaks” 516. A French feminist approach prioritizes the preexistence of a woman’s language that breaks from patriarchy, while an a priori Anglo-American approach has been focused on research into a praxis of linguistics itself. Irigaray and Kristeva picture the female body as open, blank, full of gaps and lacunae that ‘speak louder than words,” and Cixous calls writing an outpouring or disgorging of fluids. These thinkers seek to move beyond the binary of patriarchy – for Cixous, Molly Bloom carries “Ulysses off beyond any book and toward the new writing” 518. By opting for matter over mind, the female body escapes.

However, the “mysteriously multiple fluency” and “antithetical imagining of eloquent silence” is more like the male avant-garde’s fine de siecle concept of women 519. Thus, many feminists “refuse to be Mollified” 519. Is it better to speak illegibly outside history or to join the forces of the enemy? Empiricism is a way out for many American feminists, who examine linguistic structures for how ‘he/man’ usages filter out recognition of female existence; indeed, as if corroborating the French emphasis on blanks, gaps, silences… ‘for females, the only semantic space in English is negative'” 519. Beyond “pronoun envy” are also “lexical asymmetries” of wholeness for man and things like hysteria for women 520. Robin Lakoff proposes that women’s English is collaborative, but weaker than men’s.

Ultimately, the French and American sides of the argument appear quite different, at least in part because French is a more gender-marked and inflected language 520. The authors wonder if the “charisma” of French discourse is a haute-couture of linguistics (“a utopian vision of woman’s language”) beside the “garment district empiricism” of Americans (“a dystopian version of woman’s sentence”) 521. Rather than “a joyously emetic emission from a community based on the commonality of women,” the American approach has stressed that “if a woman learns and uses women’s language, she is necessarily considered less than a real full person,” but if she does not, “she is ostracized as unfeminine” (Lakoff’s double bind) 521.

One issue is the repetition of women as suppressed, as not yet fully present. But even Virginia Woolf, in tracing a weak line up to her own time, 70 years before Gilbert & Gubar are writing, found a tradition beginning in the late 18th century of women’s writing 522. Woolf’s “woman’s sentence” is neither French nor American in its approach – it is more historical than the first and more optimistic than the latter. Woolf used “what was essentially a fantasy about a utopian linguistic structure… to define (and perhaps disguise) her desire to revise not woman’s language but woman’s relation to language” 523. The woman’s sentence is not so much about the grammatical construction of language as it is about overturning the idea that a sentence is final, judgmental, or complete, “by which woman has been kept from feeling that she can be in full command of language” 523. Woolf’s fantasy is of the legal power to sentence being moved to the realm of femininity.

Molly Bloom’s, while held up as example, is still a leaky, chaotic discourse set against the two men’s. James (in The Bostonians) fears the chatter of women will take over male discourse, and Eliot (in “Hysteria”), has “caught” the disease from woman and runs on in a paragraph rather than a poem proper 526. Even in The Waste Land, the female characters are hysterical, and can “connect nothing with nothing,” except for the silent hyacinth girl, and Eliot’s goal seems to be to transcend female language, “justifying Joyce’s claim that The Waste Land ‘ended the idea of poetry for ladies'” 526.

The authors point to Emily Dickinson as the foremother of a fantasy of women’s language as sorcery, as well as Wharton, Barnes, Cather, Hurston, H.D. and Stein. Stein “speaks in tongues” in Tender Buttons, “recover[ing] the numinous names of an alternative history” 529. G & G also point to the inscrutable sky-writing of Mrs. Dalloway, where the homeless woman’s song is mystical and Clarissa and Septimus are given a similar language 531. “Woolf emphasizes the fact that both the alienation from language her books describe and the revision of lexicography her books detail are functions of the dispossession of women, as well as of women’s natural resources in the face of this dispossession” 531. This includes Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast’s creaking on in To the Lighthouse as they keep the house from further disintegration 531.

What is the difference between “mother tongue” and “father speech”? The latter is an external possession, like Latin or Greek, and is hierarchically above and more pure the intimate vernacular we gain at birth 533. Perhaps men translating between these two forms of speech also feel belated to their forefathers. Joyce is the prime example, the authors hold, of the transformation of mother tongue into dense, hard father speech. “Oxen of the Sun” plays through a “(male) linguistic ontogeny” that “recapitulates (male) linguistic phylogeny” (the individual’s development scans the biological history of that development) 534-5. “Most male writers are either reacting against or appropriating the verbal fertility of the mother,” since there are truly “no father tongues” 535.

The “swerve” Lacan must make to align language and the Oedipal complex demonstrates the extreme fixation on the necessary abjection of the mother. The child already has language at this point, language fed to him by his mother, but Lacan makes a logical detour to conceal this and subsume language as “fatherly,” as part of individuating from the mother 536. Is the obsession with a patriarchal language actually the result of the fear that it is matriarchal? Thus castration anxiety is more about the anxiety of the knowledge that woman is complete, that she is not castrated, as Susan Lurie argues 537. The symbolic (maternal) contract is “signed” before the social (paternal) contract is constructed 538.

“We must also ask whether the whole structure of ‘hierarchized’ oppositions that some of us have thought essentially patriarchal has been historically erected as a massive defense against the deep throat of the mother and the astonishing autonomy of that mother tongue which is common to both genders” 538.

It would be interesting to compare this to stories and food in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where a female language is also under construction.

“To carry such an empowering intuition one step further… can it be that feminist theorists must look beyond the traditional alphabetizings of history, with its masculinist syntax of subordination, to discover and recover the ways in which, as we have seen here, women have sometimes stealthily and sometimes ecstatically claimed the alphabet to capitalize (on) their own initials and their own initiatives?” 538.

Here, you might think of Mr. Ramsay’s stubborn progress through the alphabet, or even the narrator of Isherwood’s Prater Violet, cataloguing his male lovers. The authors suggest seeking language and readings and writings in the chaos of an “alphabet soup””

“The very possibility that women might achieve such a vision implies that the relationship between anatomy and linguistic destiny, between sexual diference and the symbolic contract, may promise not just female jouissance but feminist puissance. For at last, in spite of feminist doubt and masculinist dread, we can affirm that woman has not been sentenced to transcribe male penmanship; rather, she commands sentences which inscribe her own powerful character” 539.

Vivian Sobchack, “Carnal Thoughts”



Sobchack begins by acknowledging that while film reviews see film as a bodily experience, scholars often do not. Benjamin himself “speaks of cinematic intelligibility in terms of ‘tactile appropriation’ and elsewhere he speaks to the viewer’s ‘mimetic faculty,’ a sensuous and bodily form of perception” 55. She cites Jonathan Crary and Linda Williams as exceptions, as well as Laura Marks’ “haptic visuality.” As Williams points out, we are uncomfortable with the extent to which the ‘low’ genres horror, pornography, and melodrama take hold of and manipulate us as viewers 57.

Our bodily response is unclear, however – “our lack of ability to explain its somatism as anything more than ‘mere’ psychological reflex or to admit its meaning as anything more than metaphorical description” 58. Sensual description in film criticism is considered “excess” (again, think Williams!).

“Contemporary film theory has had major difficulties in comprehending how it is possible for human bodies to be, in fact, really ‘touched’ and ‘moved’ by the movies” 59.

“Film experience is meaningful not to the side of our bodies but because of our bodies. Which is to say that movies provoke in us the ‘carnal thoughts’ that ground and inform more conscious analysis” 60.

“We need to alter the binary and bifurcated structures of the film experience suggested by previous formulations and, instead, posit the film viewer’s ived body as a carnal ‘third term’ that grounds and mediates experience and language, subjective vision and the objective image – both differentiating and unifying them in reversible (or chiasmatic) processes of perception” 60. [re: the chiasmus as suture, the dialectic – what about multiplicity or faceting?]

“The lived body both provides and enacts a commutative reversibility between subjective feeling and objective knowledge, between the senses and their sense or conscious meaning” 61.

Sobchack finds herself sensitized by The Piano – in terms of touch: “my fingers comprehended that image, grasped it with a nearly imperceptible tingle of attention and anticipation and, offscreen, ‘felt themselves’ as a potentiality in the subjective and fleshy situation figured onscreen” 63.  “Those fingers were first known sensually and sensibly as ‘these’ fingers and were located ambiguously both offscreen and on” [suture] 63.

“Our common sensuous experience of the movies; the way we are in some carnal modality able to touch and be touched by the substance and texture of images; to feel a visual atmosphere envelop us; to experience weight, suffocation, and the need for air… smell and taste are less called on than touch to inform our comprehension of the images we see… I did not think a translation of my sense of sight into smell or taste; rather I experienced it without a thought” 65.

“Our lived bodies relate to ‘things’ that ‘matter’ on the screen and find them sensible in a primary, prepersonal, and global way that grounds those later secondary identifications that are more discrete and are localized” 65 [diffuse sensuality].

For Sobchack, then, we exist as both here and there, sensing and sensible, subject and object: “Perception is the flesh’s reversibility, the flesh touching, seeing, perceiving itself, one fold (provisionally) catching the other in its own self-embrace” [think Irigaray, Poulet] 66.

“Meaning, and where it is made, does not have a discrete origin in either spectators’ bodies or cinematic representation but emerges in their conjunction. We might name this subversive body in film experience the cinesthetic subject – a neologism that derives not only from cinema but… synaesthesia and coenaesthesia” 67. [Nabokov, metaphors that cross senses]

“The cinesthetic subject both touches and is touched by the screen – able to commute seeing to touching and back again without a thought and, through sensual and cross-modal activity, able to experience the movie as both here and there rather than clearly locating the site of cinematic experience as onscreen or offscreen” 71.

Of course, as Ricouer points out in “The Rule of Metaphor,” this is not literal – but it represents a confusion of the senses “from the single system of flesh and consciousness that is the lived body” 73. Thus cinema is presentation and representation – a chiasmus [again, suture?] 74.

“Our sense of the literal and the figural may sometimes vacillate… However, insofar as I cannot literally touch, smell, or taste the particular figure on the screen that solicits my sensual desire, my body’s intentional trajectory, seeking a sensible object to fulfill this sensual solicitation, will reverse its direction to locate its partially frustrated sensual grasp on something more literally accessible… my own subjectively felt lived body” 76.

“I will reflexively turn toward my own carnal, sensual, and sensible being to touch myself touching, smell myself smelling, taste myself tasting, and in sum, sense my own sensuality” 77. [faceting – sex imbricated in this?]

“In the film experience, because our consciousness is not directed toward our own bodies but toward the film’s world, we are caught up without thought… in this vacillating and reversible sensual structure that both differentiates and connects the sense of my literal body to the sense of the figurative bodies and objects I see on the screen… my experience of my sensorium becomes heightened and intensified at the same time that it is perceived as general and diffuse” 77.

Thus the fabrics and feelings are “somewhat vague and diffuse… even as it may be quite intense… my gesture of specifically intending toward the screen to rebound diffusely on myself ultimately ‘opens up’  my body to a sensuality that is both literal and figural” 78. For Sobchack, touch is no longer a stretch in film, but a catachresis – not a proper metaphor in that it is a place we are forced to “confront and name a gap in language” like the arm of a chair or head of a pin, because we are supplementing linguistic deficiency 81.

“Reciprocating the figurally literal representations of bodies and worldly things in the cinema, the spectator’s lived body in the film experience engages in a form of sensual catachresis… it fills in the gap in its sensual grasp of the figural world onscreen by turning back on itself to reciprocally (albeit not sufficiently) ‘flesh it out’ into literal physicalized sense” 82. [think Lo-lee-ta]

“As cinesthetic subjects, then, we possess an embodied intelligence that opens our eyes far beyond their discrete capacity for vision, opens the film far beyond its visible containment by the screen, and opens language to a reflective knowledge of its carnal origins and limits. This is what, without a thought, my fingers know at the movies” 84.


Kaja Silverman, “The Subject of Semiotics”


Kaja Silverman expands on Oudart’s and Miller’s Lacanian interpretations of suture in cinema. She points out that Psycho undermines suture by making us realize we are invited to be voyeurs through the window, victim and killer at once, and we have an ‘unmediated’ relationship with the camera, which ‘exceeds’ Marion’s gaze. Silverman’s argument is that suture can be even more swaying when not tied to a subject. In the shower scene, the camera routinely cuts and returns more than 30 degrees from the last shot, drawing attention to its ruptures.

“Even though we have just lost our heroine, and our own discursive postion, we can afford to finance others. What sutures us at this juncture is the fear of being cut off from narrative. Our investment in the fiction is made manifest through the packet of money which provides an imaginary bridge from Marion to the next protagonist… What Psycho obliges us to understand is that we want suture so badly that we’ll take it at any price, even with the fullest knowledge of what it entails – passive insertions into preexisting discursive positions… threatened losses and false recoveries, and subordination to the castrating gaze of a symbolic Other.” (Silverman)

“Mulvey’s argument… bears a striking resemblance to the suture theory. Both posit a cinematic adventure in which plenitude is fractured by difference and lack, only to be sealed over once again… the lack which must be both dramatized and contained finds its locus in the female body… Classic cinema abounds in shot/reverse shot formations in which men look at women.” (Silverman)

“Suture can be understood as the process whereby the inadequacy of the subject’s position is exposed in order to facilitate (create the desire for) new insertions into a cultural discourse which promises to make good that lack. Since the promised compensation involves an ever greater subordination to already existing scenarios, the viewing subject’s position is a supremely passive one, a face which is carefully concealed through cinematic sleight-of-hand… attributing to a character within the fiction qualities which in fact belong to the machinery of enunciation: the ability to generate narrative, the omnipotent and coercive gaze, the castrating authority of the law” (Silverman)