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.


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.

dir. Mike Nichols, “The Graduate”


Dustin Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a young college graduate who has just arrived home for the summer after completing his degree back East with accolades. He arrives in Pasadena to a dull series of parties and repeated conversations with his parents’ friends, all the while paralyzed about what to do with his life. He repeats his need to “just think – you know? Think!” to several other characters, but no one seems to hear him. The film begins its insistence on flattening gestures very early, denying the viewer any way in to the depth perception we normally seek (reminds me of The Master, 2012). Many such shots involve water and its silencing, suspending effects. In one shot, Ben is seated in front of a fishtank, as though his head were inside it. In another, he tries out the scuba gear his parents have given him as a gift, and the shot of him jumping into the water (all we can hear is his labored breathing through tubes) is devoid of the plunging sensation we expect (the getup would also be interesting in conversation with Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” – here the absurdity of entering a swimming pool that way). Ebert’s 1967 review claims “the film itself reacts” to the humorous moments, rather than the actors, and one of the wonderful things about this “flat” shooting style is how aware it makes us of the camera, of the very suture the film is performing (instead of an “over the shoulder” shot with Mrs. Robinson, a “through the leg” shot), which parallels the deadening visual landscape of American suburban life (think American Beauty, 1999).

Ben is soon “seduced” by Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner, and they begin an affair that slows the pace of his life even further – to a tepid crawl. The montage of this affair is almost 2 songs in length, and begins with a long sequence of overhead shots of Hoffman floating in the pool or laying out on the diving board, shot from above to achieve the same effect of flatness. in both cases. He moves in and out of the Taft Hotel Room, even jumping out of the pool and straight into bed with Mrs. Robinson in one expertly done cut. Nichols also atomizes suburban space, focusing on the isolating, separate interiors of different rooms in hotels and houses by using different music for each. The repetitive, entrancing songs of Simon & Garfunkel are extradiegetic, whereas the sort of elevator music in each room that mildly titillates with an old-fashioned faux-sensuality are diegetic. These rhythms are echoed in the hotel room number, 568 – almost like a 5, 6, 7, 8 of a subdued 60s jazz group with all the radicalness sucked out of it (the affair is again tied to water through the initial interaction in the bar, portrayed as reflected in the shimmering glass of the coffee table).

The affair is so devoid of feeling that it actually makes the sex scenes fascinating to watch. The film, which Linda Williams mentions as one of the first popular films to exit the “long adolescence” of Hollywood movies and show that sex actually happened, deals with sex in such a frank, clinical way that the viewer hardly misses its explicitness – the absence of true scandal seems to come with the territory of this flat “love” affair. Ben and Mrs. Robinson (whom he never addresses any other way, emphasizing both her age and status as property of her husband) always have sex in the dark, and Ben’s attempts to make conversation with her fail repeatedly: “I don’t think we have much to say to each other,” she says. He finds out she majored in art after she says she isn’t interested in it, and he says, “I guess you kind of lost interest in it over the years.” “Kind of,” she says. The scene develops vital sympathy in us for Mrs. Robinson – we learn she married her husband because she was pregnant with Elaine and that they now sleep in separate bedrooms. It is also in this scene that they have a terrific fight over Ben taking Elaine out on a date sometime, in which Ben calls Mrs. Robinson “a broken down alcoholic” and refers to the affair as “the sickest, most perverted thing that’s ever happened to me.” They make up, but tenuously and with no further conversation.

When Mrs. Braddock confronts Ben about the affair, too, it is in a steamy bathroom, which eliminates the points of perspective in the background, leaving us with a confused image of Ben, his mother, and the mirror. When he cuts himself, it initiates a kind of transition in the film – a sharpness that dissipates some of the steam and will emerge fully when Ben’s parents ask him to take Elaine Robinson out on a date, despite her mother’s explicit instructions to Ben to the contrary. The date starts off badly, with a shades-wearing Ben dragging Elaine to a strip club, where what should be a cloying scene is somehow remarkably touching through the eyes of the anxious, overperforming Ben: as the stripper (who looks a lot like Elaine) wiggles her tassle-pastied breasts over Elaine’s head, a single tear slides down the girl’s cheek. Ben chases her out, kisses her, and the talk begins to flow over burgers at the drive-in. They spend most of the night out and begin to fall in love: “You’re the first thing in so long that I’ve liked, the first person I could stand to be with,” says Ben.

When Elaine discovers that Ben’s affair with a married woman is with her mother, she of course freaks out and Mrs. Robinson says a cool “goodbye” to him as he rushes from the Robinson house. With this rupture, however, comes a brief moment of depth and color, where we see Ben juxtaposed against the fish tank (but clearly behind it and off to the side) and then in an upstairs window looking down at the pool. These shots restore a sense of depth and perspective to the world we’ve seen Ben in. Ultimately, he announces to his parents that he’s getting married to Elaine, though “to be perfectly honest she doesn’t even like me,” and drives to Berkeley to find her.

In the next few scenes, Ben stalks Elaine, who eventually comes to his apartment to confront him about “raping” her mother. The casualness with which this term is used is striking and pretty funny. They begin seeing each other again and toying with the idea of marriage (clearly the only outcome they can imagine for their feelings given their mutual upbringing), but Elaine writes Ben a letter one day saying “it could never be” because of her father. Pretty soon the father awaits Ben in his room and confronts him, insisting that he must have something against him in order to go after his women. “We might just as well have been shaking hands,” Ben says of his affair with the mother, whereas he insists, “I love your daughter.”

The final few scenes are a drawn-out process of Ben driving from Berkeley to Pasadena to Berkeley to Santa Barbara to track down Elaine on her wedding day to Carl. Not only are all the musical overtures by Simon & Garfunkel, but the repeated use of “Scarborough Fair” for one direction of driving and “Mrs. Robinson” for the other wear out our senses and literally parallel Ben’s schizophrenic emotions (“she once was a true love of mine” vs. “Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson). He arrives at the church after the wedding kiss (“He’s too late!” snarls Mrs. Robinson), but as he bangs on the upstairs window (yet another exchange of point-of-view shots from each of their perspectives, emphasizing depth, rather than flatness), Elaine cries back “Ben!” and rushes to the door. In the funniest scene of the movie, Ben and Elaine fight off the congregation with a crucifix, which they also use to bar the doors and make an escape on a yellow schoolbus. “It’s too late!” Mrs. Robinson shouts at her daughter, slapping her. “Not for me!” responds Elaine. In the final sequence of the film, their elation gives way to a sort of affectless, individual, inward introspection of what they have done, and the final shot shows the bus from the back winding down the road with his head and her veil visible through the window. While there is no guarantee that their love will last, the affirming and relieving power of the end of the film lies in their decision to act and to choose, rather than to continue the script of what is expected, or, as Ben claimed of his affair, let it “happen to me” with no accounting for his own actions.

Adrienne Rich: Poems


First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.

it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

Rich calls attention to the ridiculousness of the enterprise of knowledge, its oddity, as well as how alone she is. Many critics have suggested that the descent is meant to be into an investigation of the old world of patriarchy and its rules. Perhaps the ladder is taking one down only to be able to look up at the “glass ceiling” of the surface? Her self-presentation as Tiresias compares her underwater journey with that of the drowned sailor in Eliot, having a liberating knowledge of both sides of the world. The ship, if it is a vestige of common culture, is most damaged at its heart, but still holds treasures which fascinate “mermaid and merman” alike. I also love the idea of the quest as something so deep and time-consuming one forgets why one has come. Compare this with Bishop, Moore, and Murdoch, as well as Woolf on the sea and fish.

“POWER,” 1978

Living in the earth-deposits of our history

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate.

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
her wounds came from the same source as her power.

Rich’s repetition here makes double the denial of wounds (physical, literal and also metaphorical, yonic). It emphasizes the sacrifice necessary for Curie to continue her work, which killed her.