Feminist Perplexities

Dinah Birch

  • Seductions: Studies in Reading and Culture by Jane Miller
    Virago, 194 pp, £14.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 86068 943 3

Not so long ago, the most prestigious intellectual work, in the arts as in the sciences, was supposed to be impersonal. The convention was that the circumstances in which such work was produced – the age, gender, class, race or education of its producer, the institutional life which fostered it – all disappeared under a cloak of learned neutrality once it was published. This was a fiction, and everyone knew it. But it was a fiction – so the argument ran – with an egalitarian point. It didn’t matter if you were poor, or black, or a woman: once you’d managed to acquire an academic voice, your views, if suitably expressed, would be given the same consideration as those of an affluent white man. This tacit contract allowed a certain amount of mobility. Under its provisions, some working-class, black or female writers were able to make themselves heard. But they had to pay for their success with their identity: for the medium was not neutral. It spoke for an ideology which was white, masculine and middle-class. In order to make good, outsiders had to assume the values of a culture which was alien to their history and to their interests.

Feminism has not been the only phenomenon to disrupt these assumptions, but it has been the most influential. In areas of cultural analysis, at least, academic discourse has discarded much of its anonymous formality. Women have profited from the change they initiated. Much of the success achieved by feminism within institutions is due to its politically-motivated affirmation of the personal. The feminist practice has been to construct thought round individual experience and protest, rather than slipping quietly behind a screen of academic detachment. Its recognition of different kinds of knowledge has given it an intellectual energy and purpose that no other movement can at present match.

But this mistrust of objective generalisation has not been uniform. Power is still overwhelmingly invested in the masculine, and the formulation of theory is one of the strongholds of masculinity. Understandably, women who want to make a difference have not chosen to leave this field to the domination of men. Not only have they worked to construct their own theoretical understanding of the social landscape they want to transform: they have also been eager to incorporate the strategies of male theorists (Lacan is a notable example) whose status has been established in areas quite removed from, or even hostile to, their own territory.

Has this been to their advantage? Up to a point. The growth of feminist theory has given many women the confidence and the authority they needed to rise within academic hierarchies. The forms of sophisticated cultural analysis which have evolved as a result of their work would not have been possible without a disciplined theoretical underpinning. But such women have had to pay a high price for admission. In her discriminating survey of the issues confronting feminism today, Jane Miller argues that it has been too high. The form of her book is a demonstration of this conviction, for it is an account of an intellectual dilemma which takes shape as an autobiography. She remembers her own experience as an undergraduate at Cambridge, where ‘in our reading, our writing, in lectures and seminars and examinations, we were expected to drop whatever being a woman might mean to us or to others and to become as like men as we could – or at least flexibly androgynous.’ The result was a divided consciousness, in which intellectual achievement had to be held distinct from the social behaviour expected of a young woman. This cloven existence resulted in a disabling failure of confidence which continues to be (as anyone involved in the teaching of girls will affirm) dispiritingly familiar as a pattern of response for women students.

Feminism became a means of dealing with this division. But Jane Miller contends that feminism within higher education has also served to perpetuate some aspects of women’s deference to a male academy which continues to resist their progress. At the centre of this book is a painful acknowledgment of the extent to which she, and other women, have been seduced by powers which have confirmed her subjugation. As she sees it, ‘one of the deadliest and least resistible of seductions for feminists is their seduction by theorists, by theories, by the theoretical.’

Seduction is the motif which unites this wide-ranging series of cultural readings. It’s a theme that has already found prominence in feminist work, under a different guise: psychoanalytic critics have long been interested in the concept, particularly as it might describe the relation between father and daughter. But the paradigms of psychoanalysis are, in Jane Miller’s eyes, among the frameworks of thought which have seduced women, and she maintains a wary distance from their orthodoxies. Her point is that patterns of seduction and seductive entanglement might furnish us with many other ways of understanding women’s complicated and sometimes contradictory relation to a predominantly masculine world. This is no new idea: novels have been built on it for centuries. Jane Miller is shrewd about the beguiling implications of what Jane Austen’s Willoughby and Richardson’s Lovelace stand for. But her most original project is to inspect the contribution of a range of forceful male theorists – Raymond Williams, Edward Said, Mikhail Bakhtin – in a similarly sceptical light.

Given her suspicion of the theoretical, her concentration on these figures looks incongruous. In fact, she demonstrates no wish for a wholesale renunciation of theoretical analysis, and her essays are influenced by a lively dread of the anti-intellectualism which colours most feminist animosity towards theory. Miller does not want to make her book out of anecdotes and private memories. Nor does she want to exclude men. She asserts the need to define the tensions and divisions of the lives that women live among men, and that men, for all their reluctance to see themselves as gendered people, live among women. What she finds is that in the theoretical models of that world – even models driven by the need for reconstruction – women are not so much traduced as absent. Her examination of the work of Raymond Williams provides one of her most telling examples. Williams, as she describes him, is the ‘quintessentially beguiling father’. Her account of his achievement is by no means antagonistic. She explores a response which many women will recognise in themselves, for Williams’s robust defence of the needs of the marginalised and forgotten has won him much affection among socialist feminists. But what place do women have in his cultural analysis? Generally speaking, they disappear into silence.

Insofar as Williams saw women within class at all, he could barely recognise that they had histories and needs which differ from those of the men to whom they were attached. Families and children mattered to him. But they were seen as aspects of a man’s submerged private life, rather than part of a nexus of relations which is always political. Issues of sexuality and sexual relations were not included within his cultural analysis. For him, they were beyond politics, and almost (as his posthumous People of the Black Mountains suggests) beyond history itself. Williams’s failure to see the power structures of male sexuality as central to our culture was in effect a validation of that sexuality, and women who gave their assent to his thought found themselves accepting an interpretation of the world which had little to say to them.

But Williams belonged to a generation of the Left which was notoriously slow to respond to the claims of feminism. His successors have taken them more seriously. Haven’t they? Edward Said’s massively influential Orientalism might seem an encouraging instance. Said’s book shows how constructed images of the Orient contributed to a process of infantilisation or feminisation which worked to justify imperialist activity. If the Orient could be seen as a woman, it followed that she should be controlled and possessed. Said’s argument depended on what feminism had exposed in the hidden cultural structures of Europe and America, and feminists have generally responded warmly to his book. But the fact remains, as Jane Miller points out, that women are strangely invisible in Orientalism. Generally speaking, they function as sources of imagery. They make few appearances in their own right, and Said’s analysis demonstrates scant concern for the restrictions imposed upon their lives by the debilitating cultural definitions he recounts so shrewdly. Said’s definition of Orientalism rests on the contention that to be seen as feminine is to be seen as inferior, but the consequences of that assumption for the lives of individual women are hardly explored. Yet Miller – and here again, she voices a response shared by many academic women – has long been an admirer of Said’s work. She makes a wry confession: ‘I have almost certainly been seduced by this masterly dissection of the imperialists’ capacity for thought control into accepting a powerful discourse which excludes women while articulating itself on the basis of a perception of their vulnerabilities.’ Bakhtin, central to much recent theoretical work in literature, presents a comparable picture. Feminists have been able to make effective use of Bakhtin’s work. Yet his writing grants little space to women’s voices, and often, as Jane Miller shows, exhibits wearyingly familiar patterns of assumption about their experience.

Jane Miller sees no clear solution to these difficulties, for to jettison the work that embodies them is to excise many aspects of a cultural history which women must share with men. Her book is rescued from demoralisation by its vigorous investigation of areas in which women can be heard speaking for themselves. She has written in celebration of Toni Morrison’s fiction before: here again, Morrison shows what a different perspective might look like: ‘Morrison begins by assuming quite simply that communities are women, just as they are men, and that they are also produced and maintained by the connections which are possible between women and men.’

Still more deeply felt, and the most engaging part of her book, is her account of the life and work of her great-aunt, Clara Collet. A high-ranking civil servant specialising in women’s affairs, Clara’s life (1860-1948) belonged to a period of hugely increased freedom for women. Family resources enabled her to acquire a university education, and she was financially self-sufficient throughout her long career. A friendship with George Gissing (they corresponded at least once a week for ten years) admitted her to a world of artistic achievement. She embodies the independence of the new woman. Yet she emerges from Jane Miller’s description as a figure torn by the intractable divisions and contradictions that continue to haunt us. She had a powerful drive to succeed, and scorned notions of feminine self-abnegation (‘Catch me going to Botany Bay for anybody unless myself’ was her crisp response to an uplifting tale of a daughter volunteering to join her father in exile). But success, as she saw it, was masculine: ‘human strengths were, by and large, male strengths, to be sought by women as by men.’ Clara Collet spent her life seeking the acceptance of men, though she would not feign the charms of submissive femininity in order to gain their approval. It seems that she wished for marriage, but was not found marriageable by the men she wanted. Being a woman meant that she could never rise beyond a certain level of influence in the Civil Service, nor was it easy to extend her professional interests beyond the women’s concerns considered the only appropriate field for her talents. She was always paid less than her male counterparts. But she never chose to break free. She was, in short, seduced by images of the male power that both liberated and constrained her life.

Clara Collet was no helpless victim, but she was not quite a feminist exemplar either. Women in search of the sustaining simplicities of inspiration would do well to steer clear of this book. Jane Miller is more preoccupied with the ‘grit and distraction of women and their irritatingly unabsorbable condition’ than with blueprints for a collective faith. However, her essays are not without some cheering messages for women readers. She is right to remind us that being an outsider can be a solid advantage for scholars and writers, permitting a degree of latitude and commitment which a new generation of male critics might well envy. Women have their work cut out for them, but that is not in every sense a handicap.

Nevertheless, Jane Miller’s book does demonstrate the scale of the unresolved perplexities still lodged at the centre of the feminist project. Some of them have made my commission here a tricky one. Writing as a woman reviewing a book that does so much to endorse the analytical uses of the personal, is it proper for me to ignore the fact of its author’s marriage to a co-editor of this journal? It would certainly be decorous to do so. But silences, as feminists and others have shown, may constitute the most significant meaning of a text. Jane Miller’s husband makes a brief appearance on the acknowledgments page of this book, but scarcely otherwise. Yet it is hard to imagine that Karl Miller’s presence played no part in the pilgrimage of thought described in his wife’s book. The absence of any consideration of what, given her argument, must have been a critical factor in the evolution of her outlook gives some aspects of the book an evasive flavour. But then evasion and circumvention are still deeply embedded in women’s position within our culture.