Shoshanna Felman, “What Does A Woman Want?”

1993

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.

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Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar, “Sexual Linguistics”

1985

“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.

Luce Irigaray, “This Sex Which Is Not One”

1981

“Female sexuality has always been conceptualized on the basis of masculine parameters. Thus the option between ‘masculine’ clitoral activity and ‘feminine’ vaginal passivity, an opposition which Freud – and many others – saw as stages, or alternatives, in the development of a sexually ‘normal’ woman, seems rather too clearly required by the practice of male sexuality. For the clitoris is conceived as a little penis pleasant to masturbate so long as castration anxiety does not exist (for the boy child), and the vagina is valued for the ‘lodging’ it offers the male organ when the forbidden hadn has to gind a replacement for pleasure-giving” 23.

“In these terms, woman’s erogenous zones never amount to anything but a clitoris-sex that is not comparable to the noble phallic organ, or a hole-envelope that serves to sheathe and massage the penis in intercourse: a non-sex, or a masculine organ turned back upon itself, self-embracing” 23.

Irigaray points out that the supposed female penis-envy has nothing to do with her pleasures. Whereas man requires an instrument (hand) to touch himself, “Woman ‘touches herself’ all the time, and moreover no one can forbid her to do so, for her genitals are formed of two lips in continuous contact. Thus, within herself, she is already two – but not divisible into one(s) that caress each other” 24. The anxiety of “interruption” by the penis causes Irigiray to ask, “Will woman not be left with the impossible alternative between a defensive virginity, fiercely turned in upon itself, and a body open to penetration that no longer knows, in its ‘hole’ that constitutes its sex, the pleasure of its own touch?” 24.

“Woman in this sexual imaginary [of the conquesting erection] is only a more or less obliging prop for the enactment of man’s fantasies… [her] pleasure is above all a masochistic prostitution of her body to a desire that is not her own, and it leaves her in a familiar dependency upon man” 25.

Woman does not even know what she wants, so sublimated is her desire in discourse – Freud calls it “obscure… faded with time” 25.

“Within this logic, the predominance of the visual, and of the discrimination and individualization of form, is particularly foreign to female eroticism. Woman takes pleasure more from touching than from looking, and her entry into a dominant scopic economy signifies, again, her consignment to passivity: she is to be the beautiful object of contemplation” 25-6.

This places the body in “a double movement of exhibition and of chaste retreat in order to stimulate the drives of the ‘subject,'” while “her sexual organ represents the horror of nothing to see” 26. Thus in art, it is rejected as opening: “sewn back up inside” its ‘crack’ 26. This is opposed to “that contact of at least two (lips) which keeps woman in touch with herself, but without any possibility of distinguishing what is touching from what is touched” 26. She is not one or two, and her sexual organ is none – she cannot be numbered. “Maternity [touch] fills the gaps in a repressed female sexuality” 27.

Like Cixous, Irigaray emphasizes a diffuse sensuality: “her sexuality… is plural… woman has sex organs more or less everywhere… the geography of her pleasure is far more diversified… in an imaginary rather too narrowly focused on sameness” 28. “Ready-made grids” cannot account for her: “she steps ever so slightly aside from herself with a murmur… [women] do not have the interiority that you have… within themselves means within the intimacy of that silent, multiple, diffuse touch” 29. Their desire is a paradox: nothing and everything.

“Must this multiplicity of female desire and female language be understood as shards, scattered remnants of a violated sexuality? …experiencing herself only fragmentarily… what is left of a mirror invested by the (masculine) ‘subject’ to reflect himself… [her] desire… may be recovered only in secret, in hiding, with anxiety and guilt” 30.

“If the female imaginary were to deploy itself… otherwise than as scraps, uncollected debris, would it represent itself, even so, in the form of one universe? Would it even be volume instead of surface? No. Not unless it were understood, yet again, as a privileging of the maternal over the feminine. Of a phallic material, at that. Closed in upon the jealous possession of its valued product. Rivalling man in his esteem for productive excess… By closing herself off as volume, she renounces the pleasure that she gets from the nonsuture of her lips” 30.

Thus self-rediscovery for woman is “never simply being one” 31. Pleasure is not in itself a solution because it serves male enjoyment:

“Woman is traditionally a use-value for man, an exchange value among men; in other words, a commodity. As such, she remains the guardian of material substance… Woman is never anything but the locus of a more or less competitive exchange between two men, including the competition for the possession of mother earth” 32.

“How can this object of transaction claim a right to pleasure without removing her/itself from established commerce?” 31. Women do not constitute a class, but are dispersed across classes. Like Cixous, Irigaray does not advocate a reversal of the order, since it would simply reverse again, but a proliferation of language available for women and their sexuality.

Helene Cixous: “The Laugh of the Medusa”

1976

“I shall speak about women’s writing: about what it will do. Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their  bodies – for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text – as into the world and into history – by her own movement” 2039.

“There is, at this time, no general woman, no one typical woman… the infinite richness of their individual constitutions: you can’t talk about a female sexuality, uniform, homogenous, classifiable into codes – any more than you can talk about one unconscious resembling another” 2040.

Cixous turns from the past to face the future, starting with the same concern as Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own: why don’t women write? It is because they are discouraged and excluded from its ‘greatness’ 2041. “We have internalized this horror of the dark. Men have committed the greatest crime against women… led them… to be their own enemies… they have made for women an antinarcissism!” 2042.

“We the precocious, we the repressed of culture, our lovely mouths gagged with pollen, our wind knocked out of us, we the labyrinths, the ladders, the trampled spaces, the bevies – we are black and we are beautiful” 2042.

This sets up the metaphorization of women, which is the issue at the heart of ecriture feminine. In Derrida’s terms, speech was immediacy and writing was absence or deferral. But both are structured through the difference between the signifier and the signified that make up the sign. Hegel’s binaries and dialectics, supposedly reversed by Marx, nevertheless do not account for language as something between the spiritual and the material. Male writers brought out the repressed or obscured in writing through the symbolic figure of the feminine. Cixous, on the contrary, wants to render those figures literal – as bodies. As a poststructuralist, she is also interested in what the binaries of structuralism have left to uncover in the gender dynamic.

“Nearly the entire history of writing is confounded with the history of reason, of which it is at once the effect, the support, and one of the privileged alibis. It has been one with phallocentric tradition. It is indeed that same self-admiring, self-stimulating, self-congratulatory phallocentrism” 2043.

“To write. An act which will not only ‘realize’ the decensored relation of woman to her sexuality, to her womanly being, giving her access to her native strength; it will give her back her goods, her pleasures, her organs, her immense bodily territories… she has always occupied the space reserved for the guilty… she must urgently learn to speak. A woman without a body, dumb, blind, can’t possibly be a good fighter” 2044.

“It is by writing, from and toward women, and by taking up the challenge of speech which has been governed by the phallus, that women will confirm women in a place other than that which is reserved in and by the symbolic, that is, in a place other than silence” 2044.

The network of giving between women is vital to Cixous’  mode. “It is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing… which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. But it will always surpass the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system… by subjects of automatisms, by peripheral figures that no authority can ever subjugate” 2046. Cixous opposes to a “bisexuality” that would collapse difference and refuse to acknowledge gender the “multiplication of the effects of the inscription of desire” and both genders “over all parts of my body and the other body” 2047. We are not obligated to “deposit our lives in their banks of lack,” writes Cixous, simply because man “holds the rock” of castration’s lack over us 2048.

Ecriture feminine is the impossible paradox of the assertion of the female body in/as writing and the history and possibility of its being written by men. If man is A and woman is not-A, then one half is essentially destroyed or obscured so the other half makes sense. Therefore, Cixous does not write as “a feminist,” which would be to reproduce the structure of The One, based on a binary (Lacan says this makes One). She opposes this to heterogeneity and multiplicity instead. Though she has been accused of essentialism, she is also battling it here, in the limits of language itself.

“They riveted us between two horrifying myths: between the Medusa and the abyss” 2048. (Interesting that the Medusa myth involves a mirror… Lacanian?) “We’re going to show them our sexts!… Men say there are two unrepresentable things: death and the feminine sex… they need femininity to be associated with death; it’s the jitters taht gives them a hard-on! for themselves! They need to be afraid of us… a woman’s body, with its thousand and one thresholds of ardor” 2048-9. The female body itself is diffuse, and has many centers – erotically and sensually, it is not focused genitally, as the man’s is 2052 (the rhizome).

“Begetting a child doesn’t mean that the woman or the man must fall ineluctably into patterns or must recharge the circuit of reproduction… Either you want a kid or you don’t – that’s your business… it’s up to you to break old circuits… defamilialization… Let us defetishize. Let’s get away from the dialectic which has it that the only good father is a dead one, or that the child is the death of his parents” 2053/

“Oral drive, anal drive, vocal drive – all these drives are our strengths, and among them is the gestation drive – just like the desire to write: a desire to live self from within, a desire for the swollen belly, for langauge, for blood… I want all of me with all of him… But not because [woman] is gelded; not because she’s deprived and needs to be filled out, like some wounded person who wants to console herself or seek vengeance: I don’t want a penis to decorate my body with. But I do desire the other for the other, whole and entire, male or female, because living means wanting everything that is, everything that lives, and wanting it alive. Castration? Let others toy with it. What’s a desire originating from lack? A pretty meager desire” 2054.

There are few texts because few women have won back their bodies. But we are “more bodily” than men – it is how we have suffered, and we should use the body to learn a new speech – to make a new language for women that explodes and turns around phallic language 2050.

“A love that rejoices in the exchange that multiplies. Wherever history still unfolds as the history of death, she does not tread… She gives that there may be life, thought, transformation. This is an ‘economy’ that can no longer be put in economic terms… not her sum but her differences. I am for you what you want me to be at the moment you look at me in a way you’ve never seen me before: at every instant. When I write, it’s everything that we don’t know we can be that is written out of me, without exclusions, without stipulation, and everything we will be calls us to the unflagging, intoxicating, unappeasable search for love. In one another we will never be lacking” 2056.