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.


Julia Kristeva, “Desire in Language”


In this text, Kristeva outlines the process of abjection, by which the child exits the feminine (semiotic, pre-Mirror) stage of language tied to the mother and rejects her, entering the masculine (symbolic, post-Mirror) stage of language involved in independence and the social. Unlike Lacan, Kristeva believes that the subject continues to oscillate between the two realms, especially women, who continue to identify with the mother and the semiotic realm.


“As soon as linguistics was established as a science (through Saussure, for all intents and purposes) its field of study was thus hemmed in (suture)’ the problem of truth in linguistic discourse became dissociated from any notion of the speaking subject” 24.

For Kristeva, a better model “would deflect linguistics toward a consideration of language as articulation of a heterogenous process, with the speaking subject leaving its imprint on the dialectic between the articulation and its process” 24-5.


“Rather than a discourse, contemporary semiotics takes as its object several semiotic practices which it considers as translinguistic; that is, they operate through and across language, while remaining irreducible to its categories as they are presently assigned… in the space of a given text, several utterances, taken from other texts, intersect and neutralize one another” 37 [Bakhtin].

“The novel, seen as a text, is a semiotic practice in which the synthesized patterns of several utterances can be read. For me, the utterance specific to the novel is not a minimal sequence… It is an operation, a motion that links, and even more so, constitutes what might be called the arguments of the operation, which, in the study of a written text, are either words or word sequences (sentences, paragraphs) as sememes… Novelistic utterances, as they pertain to this suprasegmental level, are linked up within the totality of novelistic production… The ideologeme of the novel is precisely this intertextual function defined according to the [extra novelistic textual set] and having value within [the novelistic textual set]” 37.

“The modality of novelistic enunciation is inferential: it is a process within which the subject of the novelistic utterance affirms a sequence, as conclusion of the inference, based on other sequences (referential – hence narrative, or textual – hence citational), which are the premises of the inference, and, as such, considered to be true. The novelistic inference is exhausted through the naming process of the two premises… The function of the author/actor’s enunciation therefore consists in binding his discourse to his readings, his speech act to that of others” 45.

“The novelistic utterance conceives of the opposition of terms as a nonalternating and absolute opposition between two groupings that are competitive but never solidary… instead of an infinity complementary to bipartition… it introduces the figure of dissimulation, of ambivalence, of the double” 47. [vs multiplicity/ rhizome/ faceting]

“The novel’s nondisjunctive function is manifested, at the level of the concatenation of its constituent utterances, as an agreement of deviations” the two originally opposed arguments (forming the thematic loops life-death, good-evil, beginning-end, etc.) are connected and mediated by a series of utterances whose relation to the originally posited opposition is neither explicit nor logically necessary” 51-2.

“Writing is revealed… as a function that ossifies, petrifies, and blocks… an artificial limit, an arbitrary law, a subjective finitude… the entire history of the novel: the devalorization of writing, its categorization as pejorative, paralyzing, and deadly. This phenomenon is on a par with its other aspect: valorization of the oeuvre, the Author, and the literary artifact (discourse)… What opens it is speech” 59.


Kristeva begins with Bakhtin,

“one of the first to replace the static hewing out of texts with a model where literary structure does not simply exist but is generated in relation to another structure. What allows a dynamic dimension to structuralism is his conception of the ‘literary word’ as an intersection of textual surfaces rather than a point (fixed meaning), as a dialogue among several writings: that of the writer, the addressee (or the character), and the contemporary or earlier cultural context” 65.

In Bakhtin’s ‘carnivalesque,’ “the poetic word, polyvalent and multi-determined, adheres to a logic exceeding that of codified discourse and fully comes into being in the margins of recognized culture”: “Diachrony is transformed into synchrony, and in light of this transformation, linear history appears as abstraction” 65.

“The minimal unit of poetic language is at least double, not in the sense of the signifier/signified dyad, but rather, in terms of one and other… each ‘unit’… acts as a multi-determined peak” 69. [Irigaray on the vagina]

“The novel incorporating carnivalesque structure is called polyphonic. Bakhtin’s examples include Rabelais, Swift, and Dostoievski. We might also add the ‘modern’ novel of the 20th century – Joyce, Proust, Kafka – while specifying that the modern polyphonic novel, although analogous in its status, where monologism is concerned, to dialogical novels of the past, is clearly marked off from them… the problem of intertextuality (intertextual dialogue) appears as such” 71.

“Bakhtin’s term dialogism as a semic complex thus implies the double, language, and another logic… the logic of distance and relationship between the different units of a sentence or narrative structure, indicating a becoming – in opposition to the level of continuity and substance, both of which obey the logic of being and are thus monological” 71.

“According to Bakhtin, there are three categories of words within the narrative… the direct word, referring back to its object… denotative… the object-oriented word… the direct discourse of characters… oriented towards its object and is itself the object of the writer’s orientation… ambivalent [word]… the result of a joining of two sign systems… repetition… takes what is imitated (repeated) seriously, claiming and appropriating it without relativizing it… The novel is the only genre in which ambivalent words appear; that is the specific characteristic of its structure” 73.


“For a woman, generally speaking, the loss of identity in jouissance demands of her that she experience the phallus that she simply is; but this phallus must immediately be established somewhere; in narcissism, for instance, in children… narrowminded mastery, or in fetishism of one’s ‘work’… Otherwise, we have an underwater, undermaternal dive: oral regression, spasmodic but unspeakable and savage violence, and a denial of effective negativity” 164.

“The problem is to control this resurgence of phallic presence; to abolish it at first, to pierce through the paternal wall of the superego and afterwards, to reemerge still uneasy, split apart, asymmetrical, overwhelmed with a desire to know, but a desire to know more and differently than what is encoded-spoken-written” 165. [rich, moore, bishop, faceting]

“A text that exists only if it can find a reader who matches its rhythm – its sentential, biolgical, corporeal, and trans-familial rhythm, infinitely marked out within historical time… the explosion that surrounds us, moves through us, refashions us and that sooner or later we shall have to hear” 208.