Reading as a woman

Christopher Norris

  • Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy by Mary Daly
    Women’s Press, 407 pp, £14.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 7043 2847 X
  • Feminist Literary Studies: An Introduction by K.K. Ruthven
    Cambridge, 162 pp, £16.50, December 1984, ISBN 0 521 26454 5
  • Women: The Longest Revolution by Juliet Mitchell
    Virago, 334 pp, £5.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 86068 399 0
  • Hélène Cixous: Writing the Feminine by Verena Andermatt Conley
    Nebraska, 181 pp, £20.35, March 1985, ISBN 0 8032 1424 3
  • Women who do and women who don’t by Robyn Rowland
    Routledge, 242 pp, £5.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 7102 0296 2
  • The Sexual Politics of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Joel Schwartz
    Chicago, 196 pp, £14.45, June 1984, ISBN 0 226 74223 7

Why these books should have come to a male reviewer is perhaps more a question for the editor than myself. All the same, it is an issue that can hardly be ducked in the context of present-day feminist debate. Is it possible for a well-disposed male heterosexual to ‘read as a woman’, overcoming all the gender-based habits and assumptions imposed by a rigidly patriarchal culture? Jonathan Culler argues as much in the opening chapters of his recent book On Deconstruction. For Culler, this serves as a paradigm case of the way that deconstructionist strategies of reading can work to undo such naturalised categories as ‘male’ versus ‘female’, conceived in biological or essentialist terms. It is not enough for feminist critics to identify subjectively with women writers, or with those elements of repressed female experience there to be uncovered in the texts of patriarchal tradition. Such thinking is the first stage only, since it cannot do more than put up local resistance and leave the opposition male/female firmly in place. What is needed, Culler argues, is a systematic process of displacement which interrogates the logic underlying such assumptions and shows it to rest on a certain blindness to its own textual workings. Thus Freud’s discourse on female sexuality reveals all the symptomatic twists and distortions of a theory bent upon establishing power over that which would otherwise elude its control. Hysteria and penis-envy are just two of those mythic explanations which Freud has to invent by way of warding off this threat to the phallocratic order of things.

So the best way to read such episodes is to treat them precisely as allegories of reading, cases where the text of male authority comes up against the limits of its own explanatory force. ‘Reading as a woman’ is not just a matter of imagining what it feels like to be George Eliot or to be Dorothea Brooke or to be a present-day female reader of Eliot’s fiction. Such efforts of imaginary identification are merely a reverse acting-out of the standard sexual stereotypes. Rather, it requires a deconstructive reading of the male-engendered myths and stratagems that work to impose such essentialist notions of typically ‘female’ experience. And it follows from Culler’s argument that a male critic with enlightened (deconstructionist) views is just as well placed as a female when it comes to the activity of ‘reading as a woman’. There are two main assumptions at work here. First, it is taken for granted that the nature and modalities of ‘female’ experience are largely a matter of cultural conditioning, gender-roles rather than given (bio-logical) attributes. This leads on to the second supposition: that theorists (male or female) can effect a critique of those naturalised gender-roles by consciously devising strategies of thought through which to loosen their hold. Theory becomes a kind of gender-neutral ground from which to deconstruct the more primitive mythologies of sexual difference.

But to some feminists it is just this move on the part of (supposedly) well-meaning males that signals their desire to take things over and restore the sexual status quo. Theory is seen as an exclusively male preserve, a product of the technocratic will-to-power that has always thrived by ignoring, suppressing or – as in this case – craftily co-opting the female opposition. To theorise is inherently to reduce differences, to seek out monopolistic schemes of explanation which set their own terms for ‘rational’ debate. Hence the current quarrel between radical feminists and, among others, those thinkers in the Marxist tradition who pin their faith to a generalised theory of class, ideology and social formation. Hence also their hostility toward any male critic, like Culler, who claims to arrive at a feminist position by deploying theory beyond and against its usual (phallocentric) order of assumptions. To this way of thinking it is a mere impertinence for males to set up as adoptive feminists on the strength of their enlightened attitude. Theory remains what it always was: a technique for devaluing whatever belongs to the female sphere of intuitive, authentic or natural being. There is no question here of sexual difference reducing very largely to gender-roles whose ‘natural’ opposition can be deconstructed by an independent effort of thought. Such thinking merely perpetuates the old male illusion that theory is enough to remove all obstacles to a free and equal discourse. On the contrary, these feminists argue: theory is on the side of aggressive masculinity, and only by acknowledging their real sexual difference – beyond all talk of gender stereotypes – can women resist its oppressive logic. Male converts are welcome, like men at Greenham Common, so long as they accept a visitor’s role. Those who come fore-armed with legitimating theories might as well be manning the missiles.

Mary Daly puts the case with maximum force in her attack on the protocols of male-centred logic and language. Pure Lust is a wild hybrid of a book, outrageously mixing history and myth, Joycean word-play and a kind of Heideggerian questing-back for the etymopoeic roots of a long-lost matriarchal culture. ‘Elemental women’ are the sole addressees of Daly’s message, and the male reader is nowhere entertained except as an alien, intrusive presence. ‘Philosophise with a hammer’ was Nietzsche’s response to the apostles of systematic theory and method. Daly takes a hammer to everything she sees as invested with male values, from the orderly constructions of prose discourse to the ‘sado-ascetic’ perversions of instinct bred in equal measure by science, religion and the wholesale policing of sexual identity. Like Foucault, she is concerned with the micro-politics of power and desire, the workings of repression at a level far removed from most Marxist ideas of the state and its ideological agencies. But here the resemblance has an end. Foucault conducts his genealogical investigations for the most part in a language of studied neutrality, just occasionally rising to a tone of apocalyptic fervour. In Daly’s writing such moments occur in almost every sentence, creating an effect of constant assault upon the limited resources of a male-engendered academic style.

There is not much point in selective quotation since this writing depends very much on a sense of cumulative impact and can easily look absurd if wrenched out of context. Nor would it serve any useful purpose to summarise the main lines of argument – a standard technique (as Daly regards it) for reducing the energies of female language to the cut-and-dried categories of male reason. Thus the book pre-empts any adverse comment by setting up the typecast male opponent as an implied reader whose impotent rage is exposed to female ridicule. For Daly, things have simply gone too far to permit any tactical alliance of interests between authentic (‘elemental’) women and well-meaning male fellow-travellers. What is at stake is the survival of life on earth, threatened by a technocratic reason whose effects include the destruction of nature, the pollution of mind and body, and the imminent prospect of nuclear war. In the face of all this – so Daly would argue – there is no making terms with ‘enlightened’ males who think to join forces with the feminist movement by casting off the shackles of conventional gender-roles.

So it is mere bad faith, on Daly’s view, for the male to take comfort in sophisticated theories which permit him the illusion of ‘reading as a woman’. Female experience is rooted in a whole different sphere of ‘ontological’ being, the discovery of which is only possible for women who have seen through the myths of male rationality. Men can make a show of doing the same, but their act is nothing more than a simulated gesture.

Women who have experienced the epiphany ... have almost immediately known what the women’s movement is ‘all about’. This knowledge is intuitive and organic ... It could be compared to the seedling of a tree that will grow forever if we choose this knowing/growing ... The biophilic will to know E-motionally is a will to impassioned expression of Original Integrity.

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