Acrimony

Nina Auerbach

  • Critical Condition: Feminism at the Turn of the Century by Susan Gubar
    Columbia, 237 pp, £16.00, February 2000, ISBN 0 231 11580 6

Susan Gubar has kept the faith. Most of the ‘feminist critics’ of the late 1970s, myself included, have drifted away, though not away from feminism: feminist criticism, an exclusive academic sorority, was always distinct from commitment to a political movement. But despite her dismay and even despair at what’s become of academic feminism, Gubar does her best to tend the flame.

Why, I wonder? Why not let it go out? As Gubar describes it, at length and with passion, feminist criticism has degenerated since its harmonious beginnings in the mid-1970s, becoming a self-enclosed hive of accusations and counter-accusations. I believe her. It sounds awful. Why keep going to those conferences, listening to those papers that attack or ignore you? Why cling to the fantasy of a lost concord?

It is hard for the fight against oppression to retain its brio when the oppressor softens. Feminist criticism has soured in part because the issues are subtler today. Society is not perfect; enemies of women’s rights abound; but three decades have overcome the institutionalised contempt that kindled feminist criticism in the first place. I don’t miss being sneered at, any more than I miss the Vietnam War, though I do sometimes miss the buoyant anti-war protests. The songs, the marches, the hysterical belief in the virtue of our cause, were more fun than feminist criticism ever was; but the Vietnam War did, at last, end. I still have my peace buttons, but I’m glad the war is over, and I’m glad, too, that feminist criticism is free to shed its urgency.

In defining Critical Condition as a protest against the present, I may be making the book sound more coherent than it is. Technically, it isn’t a book, but a collection of eight essays, four of which have been previously published. Gubar herself claims that ‘there is no plot to the book,’ but she is too modest: if you like tragedy, the eight essays in Critical Condition can be read from beginning to end or, if you like comedy, from end to beginning. As it goes along, its cohesion becomes compelling, even claustrophobic. Beneath the language of disinterested diagnosis is a lament for a happier past.

The first three essays are variations on identity politics: accounts of African American women artists, of lesbian poetry and fiction, and of the fraught intersection of Judaism and feminism. They are lighter and more tolerant than the later parts of the book. I find the first essay, ‘Women Artists and Contemporary Racechanges’, the most appealing, perhaps because much of the material is new to me. There are vigorous appreciations of the painter Faith Ringgold (Gubar is always at her happiest when writing about painting; visual art brightens her prose) and of the performance artist Anna Deavere Smith. As Gubar celebrates them, Ringgold and Deavere Smith offer visions of impossible reconciliation. Deavere Smith’s one-woman show, Fires in the Mirror, an account of the murderous hostility between Brooklyn’s black community and its Lubavitcher Jews, turns into a healing ritual:

The affliction suffered by many of Deavere Smith’s characters can convince other members of her audience that no just recompense could ever repair the suffering racism has inflicted ... Yet to the extent that the cast of characters emerges through one body – that of Deavere Smith – and that their composite voices elegiacally mourn and thereby memorialise the dead, this woman artist herself becomes the oracular priestess, the shaman of America’s commitment to e pluribus unum, a composite of Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac on the road to becoming a cosmos.

I don’t hear so much as a whisper of reconciliation in Deavere Smith’s excoriating re-creation of hate and murder, but in this initial essay, Gubar finds in African American women’s art the comity that eludes her in the academy. There may be a whiff of stereotyping here – isn’t it the job of women, and especially of black servants, to bring warring factions together? – but the energy with which Gubar illuminates this material is a heartening antidote to the later essays.

If we read these three opening essays back to front, however, moving from Gubar’s many laments on Judaism and feminism to the supposed healing touch of Ringgold and Deavere Smith, they can be seen as something more sinister: episodes in a story Gubar insists she is not telling, ‘in which early feminist critics (prominent in the 1970s) felt beleaguered by the attacks of their successors (in the 1980s and 1990s), a group that just happened to be comprised of theorists of colour and of lesbianism. Oh dear!’ Subsequent disclaimers never quite dispel the image of a cosy knot of white, straight, successful academic feminists disoriented by the encroachment of angry self-defining outsiders.

From this parochial perspective, Gubar’s essays on African American art and lesbian writing come to seem like a tit-for-tat appropriation of the identity politics of the groups that rejected her. Even the more personal and charming account of the feminist author trying to negotiate the sexism of traditional Judaism reads like a gesture towards the identity politics which, in the 1980s, denied the universality of her own work. A less inbred essay on Judaism would have gone beyond the changing texts used in Passover rituals to address the intense political history of American Jews, as well as the subordination of women central to all the major religions.

A fourth essay, jokingly entitled ‘The Greying of Professor Erma Bombeck’ – about an ageing feminist in the academy – functions as a bridge between supposed celebration and three essays of out and out denunciation: ‘What Ails Feminist Criticism?’, the pivotal piece, whose title, we are told several times, was toned down from the original ‘Who Killed Feminist Criticism?’; a sketchy anatomy of ‘Feminist Misogyny’ (one of the thinnest and most derivative essays); and an Epilogue which strains to be upbeat but relies – what could be more depressing? – on a tortured astronomical metaphor to affirm a rebirth of feminist criticism light-years beyond our time.

These later essays made my teeth grind in irritation, if only because I heard my own voice in them. I am part of Susan Gubar’s feminist generation; we were impertinent together in the 1970s; and my hair is now greyer than hers. I, too, sometimes talk gratingly about ‘the young’ or ‘young people’; I, too, hate the sense that I inhabit an academic bastion which seems to be losing status year by year because women like me are part of it; I, too, miss the time when we could write pungently about literature instead of incomprehensibly about male authored theories. Above all, like her, I miss being seen as one of the insurgent young.

It was brave of Susan Gubar to write this book, but I wish she had focused her complaints more precisely and distinguished her many targets more clearly. Some of her complaints are idiosyncratic; others are really directed against the human condition itself; while the most telling are political in a manner she never explores. Had she approached her material more analytically and with greater social awareness, her book would speak more powerfully about, and to, a particular time and place.

For example, Gubar’s – or ‘Professor Bombeck’s’ – disenchantment is not necessarily, or even primarily, a feminist (or female) issue. At most American universities, the structure of tenure ensures that we will get more bored, and boring, as we age. ‘Tenured female professors today,’ Gubar writes, ‘are expected to be able to interrupt research for teaching, teaching for service activities, and all those for various domestic exertions ... presumably with no cost to our health or welfare.’

Yes, but men, too, must balance research, teaching, service and draining domestic complications. All academics, male and female, are under pressure to be brilliant only when young. To receive tenure, an assistant professor must, in theory, be the best in the field; that same professor must then crank out only enough pages to get promoted, after which he or she is expected to subside into institutional life, sitting on committees and nurturing the young. It is frustrating that one’s best and ripest years are supposed to dribble away in bureaucratic make-work; it may be especially frustrating for Gubar’s generation – and mine – which was fuelled by alienation; but I see this corroding institutionalisation as part of a broader, more deadening phenomenon than the exploitation of women.

Gubar notes pressures specific to academic women, but shies away from discussing them. In and out of the academy, caretaking – of children, of students, of untenured professors, of ageing relatives – is still defined (by many women as well as men) as women’s work. Presumably it is women who labour to maintain the domestic havens men go home to enjoy – and do so after enduring enforced womanliness all day at work. Gubar refers wittily but sketchily to the Mommy Track that pervades departmental assumptions: ‘As female professors, many of us feel expected to spend exorbitant amounts of time nurturing students and colleagues (in short, playing Mommy) and to organise more than our share of the socialising activities – teas, cocktail parties, dinners, reading groups – that soothe and salve insecure intellectuals.’

This return to propping others up, making of one’s fought-for career a reiteration of the old female performance, is what the essay should have been about. It is ironic after all that women who gained tenure because they were dashing feminist critics should find themselves eased into nurturing roles. Of course, it’s always possible to say no, but the pressure to age into regression, at home and on the job, is an important feminist issue. Instead of pursuing it, however, Gubar buries the particular double-bind in which academic women find themselves in an indiscriminate groan about working too hard, the dumbing down of students, the selfish demands of colleagues, the pressure of deadlines, and everything else we all always complain about – although these complaints must ring hollow to the many brilliant young aspirants who have been denied an academic career. Instead of aligning herself with a feminist movement doing its best to help women resist servitude, Gubar turns on feminism itself – in its clannish academic form – as her ultimate devouring enemy.

After several readings, I’m sorry to find the central essay – ‘What Ails Feminist Criticism?’, aka ‘Who Killed Feminist Criticism?’ (a more accurate title) – as offensive as Gubar fearfully acknowledges it might be. It is less an argument than a dirge. Between 1975 and 1980, an ‘edenic’ band of pioneering women opened the field of Women’s Studies. The invasion of outsiders after 1980 – African American and lesbian theorists, post-structuralists, generic careerists, the generic young – fractured this community. In the idyllic days, feminist critics used ‘we’ with trust and authority, but angry invaders refused to be included in our ‘we’.

Gubar is not a racist, as some readers of this essay have apparently charged, but she seems to lose her balance when attacked, inserting provocative sub-headings like ‘What Do You Mean “We”, White Woman?’, which is not a direct quotation from any critic, and never qualifying the pervasive tone of stricken innocence. The essay isn’t racist, but more generally xenophobic. Feminist criticism was not killed by invaders. I was there, too, and it was a privilege to be among such brilliant women in such heady years. But what Gubar describes is not quite what happened. As I remember it, the murderer was not Others, but the supposedly inviolate pioneering generation itself.

To begin with, between 1975 and 1980, the years to which Gubar looks back longingly, there was no such thing as feminist criticism. The four or five books that appeared in those years (including my own Communities of Women) were written independently of each other, inspired not by a legislative coterie, but by sudden social changes, newly visible archives, our own unprecedented authority in a profession that had been closed to outspoken women. Observers – journalists, administrators, more traditional scholars – put us in a category called ‘feminist critics’. Only around 1980 did we adopt the label ourselves, an internalisation that marked the beginning of the end.

Almost immediately, feminist criticism started to police itself from within. Members of the group jockeyed for the role of spokeswoman; categories sprang up mandating the sort of work we should be doing; self-canonising anthologies appeared; it became fashionable to neglect our own work and to write clubby little essays for each other about ‘What Feminist Criticism Means to Me’. The larger world receded, and so did whatever sense of mission the pioneers had had.

Gubar explains Elaine Showalter’s withdrawal from feminism in a manner I find shocking: ‘Around 1985 ... she stopped producing feminist articles, worn down by hostile reactions produced by people who then turned around to ask her for a letter of recommendation.’ If Showalter, an early leader, really made so self-preserving an admission, it shames us all. For Susan B. Anthony, Gloria Steinem and hordes of more obscure crusaders, embracing The Cause meant embracing a lifetime of abuse. Academic feminism shrank away before the fight began.

The rule of full disclosure obliges me to admit that while I was attached to that early feminist circle, I never fitted in, though reviewers treated us as a single hydra-headed creature. I couldn’t make anything I wrote conform to the requisite categories; I couldn’t remember the difference between ‘feminist criticism’, ‘feminist critique’ and ‘gynocriticism’ – tags that were supposed to circumscribe what we wrote. Moreover, after 1979, like many others, I became all too ruefully aware of the fact that I hadn’t written The Madwoman in the Attic.

Critical Condition modestly elides the impact of The Madwoman (co-authored with Sandra Gilbert), but its fame has clearly fuelled some of the nastiness Gubar complains of. It isn’t merely that other feminists are jealous of The Madwoman, though we are: even among those who haven’t read it, the book has come to represent the field in the same way that Elvis is now synonymous with the American 1950s, rendering other work (including both Gilbert and Gubar’s own subtler and more learned books) superfluous. Most of us became feminist critics because we believed men would marginalise our work and make it invisible. It was galling to be marginalised and made invisible by our own. One might as well return to the outside world.

In general, the early so-called feminist critics were allies and friends, but as far as I was concerned, we were never a cohesive unit. From the beginning I balked at the feminist ‘we’. Just as I resisted the elegant ‘we’ who spun moral cobwebs in the books by Lionel Trilling that dominated my graduate-school days, I resisted the wounded, heavy-breathing ‘we’ of The Madwoman in the Attic, crushed by male ogres, capable of writing only one story. In fact, the ‘we’ whose disappearance Gubar laments never existed, nor should it have. ‘We’ is an inherently coercive pronoun, one most critics, in and outside the academy, have abandoned. The loss of the rhetorical ‘we’, the admission of differences, should, for writers and scholars at least, be liberating.

When the inevitable attacks came with the Reagan years, they were more prominent than the backbiters who dared to ask Blaine Showalter for recommendations. After 1987, a seemingly unending spate of books, magazine articles and op-ed pieces appeared, deploring the corruption of American universities, at the heart of which lay the perfidious influence of academic feminism. Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, with its weighty endorsement from Saul Bellow, was the first and probably the most respectable of these works. Bloom’s book (like Gubar’s) is a requiem for the humanities and the vixen at its heart is the feminist invader.

A host of vulgar sequels followed, many of them funded by conservative foundations, and all attacking academic feminism in lurid language. If anyone had it in mind to kill feminist criticism, it was the American Right, but oddly, Gubar mentions their attacks only in footnotes or in passing. Critical Condition does begin by quoting a cover story in Time Magazine proclaiming the death of feminism, but it was only a wavelet (Time seems to have been announcing the death of feminism ever since feminism began) in a flood of media abuse that is now more than a decade old – an assault to which none of the early feminist leaders has, as far as I know, responded. Feminist critics who in 1980 battled to be spokeswomen were, by 1990, running for cover.

Critical Condition rightly claims that academic feminists now speak only to each other, and that their conversation is increasingly obscurantist and acrimonious, so it is hard to know what to think about the public denunciation they have suffered without rebuttal: how much of this is legitimate, how much is distortion? The main conservative charge is that academic feminism has politicised what was once an inviolate academy – an accusation that both Gubar and I find ludicrously, lamentably wrong, though for different reasons.

According to Gubar, feminist criticism lost its political impetus when the wrong people came in: I found the group insular and self-absorbed from the beginning. It seems to me impossible, though, to write about feminist criticism in the past twenty years without writing about its collective silence in the face of sustained public attack. The airlessness of Critical Condition, its assumption that women live cocooned from the larger society, is the airlessness of feminist criticism itself. If academic feminism has become nastier and more self-destructive in the past decade, as it seems to have done, I would assume that the cause is not interlopers, but abuse from outside – much of it politically motivated – which has affected university funding, the reputation of the field and, most immediately, student attitudes to Women’s Studies. It may be that even the pioneers, like good non-combative women, believed in feminist criticism only as long as it brought approval, tenure and a good press. It now seems to be dissipating in petty squabbles just as the American Left did when it was harried by incessant right-wing invective in the anti-Communist 1950s.

Not all writers have been silent in the face of anti-feminist attacks. A comprehensive response came, not from the pioneers, but from one of The Young: Susan Faludi’s bulging bestseller Backlash, a book Gubar never mentions. As an academic school, feminist criticism may have imploded, but feminist criticism is everywhere. I cannot read an article, a book review or a book (academic or popular), I cannot even watch television or follow a political campaign, without feeling its eddies and its influence. Were feminist critics to expand their horizons, they would see that feminist criticism is neither ailing nor dead, but changed and doing battle.