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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Feminist Criticism

Feminist Criticism

Feminism is a diverse collection of social theories, political movements, and moral philosophies, largely motivated by or concerning the experiences of women, especially socially, politically, and economically. As a social movement, feminism largely focuses on limiting or eradicating gender inequality and promoting women's rights, interests, and issues in society.Feminism as a self-aware, concerted approach entered literature in 1960’s. However about two centuries of struggle preceeds it. Beginning with Mary Wollsonecrafts – A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), Margaret Fuller (Am)- Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), John Stuart Mill – The Subjection of Women (1869) Today feminist literary criticism closely linked to movement by political feminists for social, economic and cultural freedom and equality.Virginia Woolf novelist, an important precursor feminist criticism, wrote numerous essays on women authors and on the cultural, economic, and educational disabilities within ‘patriarchal’ society that have prevented women from realising their creative possibilities. Her important work: A Room of One’s Own (1929)Simone de Beauvoir (French) in her The Second Sex (1949) presents a critique of cultural identification of women merely as negative object or other to ‘man’ as the defining and dominating ‘subject’ who is assumed to represent humanity in general. She also dealt with great collective myths of women in the works of many male writers. In US modern feminism began with Mary Ellman’s Thinking about Women (1968) through witty discussion of derogatory stereotypes of women in literature written by men. She also presented alternative, subversive points of view in some writings of women.Kale Millets – Sexual Politics (1969)- ‘Politics’ – mechanisms that express and enforce the relations of power in society. She discussed how western social arrangements and institutions as covert ways manipulating power to establish and perpetuate the dominance of men and subordination of women. She attacked the male bias in Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and analysed selected passages by D H Lawrence showing how they aggrandise their aggressive phallic selves and degrade selves and degrade women as submissive sexual objects. Since 1969 there has been explosion of feminist writings unparalleled in the previous history of critical innovation as it displays urgency and excitement of a religious awakening. However, there is no unitary theory of procedures in US, England and France and other countries. There is a lot of variety like psychoanalytic, Marxist and diverse post-structuralist with intense debate within them. Various feminism share assumptions and concepts that constitute common ground for the diverse ways that individual critics explore the factor of sexual differences and privilege in the production, the form and content, the reception and critical analysis and evaluation of works of literature. o Subtypes of feminismo Amazon feminismo Anarcha-Feminismo Anti-racist feminismo cultural feminismo ecofeminismo equity feminismo existentialist feminismo French feminismo gender feminismo individualist feminism (also known as libertarian feminism)o lesbian feminismo liberal feminismo male feminism or men's feminismo Marxist feminism (also known as socialist feminism)o material feminismo pop feminismo post-colonial feminismo postmodern feminism which includes queer theoryo pro-sex feminism (also known as sexually liberal feminism, sex-positive feminism)o psychoanalytic feminismo radical feminismo separatist feminismo socialist feminismo spiritual feminismo standpoint feminismo third-world feminismo transnational feminismo transfeminismo womanismo Certain actions, approaches and people can also be described as proto-feminist or post-feminist.Common grounds:1. Western civilisation is pervasively patriarchal – It is male centred, controlled, organised, conducted to subordinate women to men in all cultural domains: familial, religious, political, economic, social, legal, artistic. Hebrew Bible, Greek philosophy to present: female defined by negative reference, to the male as the human norm hence the other, non-man, by her lack of the identifying male organ, of male powers, and of the male characters traits presumed to have achieved the most important inventions and works of civilisations and culture. Women socialised to resign to patriarchal ideology (conscious and unconscious presuppositions and male superiority) and conditioned to derogate their own sex and to cooperate in their own subordination. E.g. NDTV ‘We the People’ Dress code.2. Though sex is determined by anatomy the prevailing concepts of gender- of the traits that constitute what is masculine and what is feminine are largely cultural constructs. Created by the patriarchal biases of the civilisation. Simone de Beauvoir: ‘One is not born, but becomes, a woman … it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature…. which is described as feminine.’Masculine identified as active, dominating, adventurous, rational, creative; the feminine by systematic opposition to such traits, as passive, acquiescent, timid, emotional, and conventional. 3. The patriarchal/masculinist /andro-centric ideology pervades great literary works mostly written by men. Highly regarded classics focus on male protagonists- Oedipus, Ulysses, Hamlet, Tom Jones, Captain Ahab, Huck Finn- embody masculine traits and ways of feeling and pursue masculine interests in masculine fields of action. To them female characters are marginal and subordinate, complementary, opposite to masculine desires and enterprises. They lack female role models, are addressed to male readers. They either make woman alien outsider or make her take the position of the male subject, male values, and ways of perceiving, feeling, and acting. Critical theories, traditional aesthetic categories presumed to be objective, disinterested and universal are fused with masculine assumptions, interests and ways of reasoning. Rankings, critical treatments are gender-based. Feminist critics in English-speaking countries attempt to reconstitute all the ways we deal with literature to do justice to female points of views, concerns and values. They try to alter ways of reading of the past to make her a Resisting Reader (Judith Fetterley, 1978) to resist the author’s intensions and design in order by a ‘revisionary reading’ bringing to light and countering the sexual biases written into a literary work. To find ‘images of women’ in the novels and poems of men. They fall into two antithetic patterns. One side- idealised projection of men’s desires (the Madonna, the Muse of arts, Dante’s Beatrice, the pure and innocent virgin, the ‘Angel in the House’ that was represented by the Victorian poet Coventry Patmore). The other side: demonic projections of men’s sexual resentments and terrors (Eve and Pandora as the sources of all evil, destructive sensual temptresses such as Delilah and Circe, the malign witch, the castrating mother) Though some decry literature written by men for its depiction of women as marginal docile and subservient to men’s interests and emotional needs and fears, male writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Samuel Richardson, Henrick Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw have managed to raise above the sexual prejudices of their time sufficiently to understand and present the cultural pressures that have shaped the characters of women and forced upon them their negative or subsidiary social roles. Some feminists are not concerned with woman as reader but gynocriticism. Gynocriticism: Elaine Showalter- criticism concerns itself with developing specifically female framework for dealing with works written by women in terms of production, motivation and analysis, interpretation in all literary forms, including journals and letters. Important books of this mode: Patricia Meyer Spacks: The Female Imagination (1975), on major women novelists and poets in England, America, and France; Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing (1977)Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979) Stresses the psychodynamics of women writers in the 19th century.The authors propose the ‘anxiety of authorship’ that resulted from the stereotype, that literary creativity is an exclusive male domain, effected in women writers a psychological duplicity that projected a monstrous counter figure to the heroine, typified by Bertha Rochester, the madwoman Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; such a figure is ‘usually in some sense the author’s double, an image of her own anxiety and rage’.Concerns of gynocritics- 1. to identify distinctively feminine subject matters in literature written by women – The primary issues e.g. the world of domesticity, the special experiences of gestations, giving birth, and nurturing or mother-daughter and woman-woman relations- in which personal and affectional issues, and not external activism is significant. 2. To uncover in literary history a female tradition expressed by a subcommunity of women writers who were aware of, emulated and found support in earlier women writers, and who in turn provide models and emotional support to their own readers and successors.3. To show that there is a distinctive feminine mode of experience or ‘subjectivity’ in thinking feeling, valuing and perceiving oneself and the outer world. 4. To attempt to specify the traits of a ‘woman’s language or distinctively feminine style of speech and writing, in sentence structure, types of relations between the elements of a discourse, and characteristic figures and imagery. Some feminists critically analyse women’s domestic and ‘sentimental’ novels, noted perfunctorily and in derogatory fashion in standard literary histories. These dominated the market for fiction and best sellers in the nineteenth century. Examples seen in Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing (1977) on British writers Nina Baym Woman’s fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America 1820-1870 (1978) Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century (2 Vols; 1988-89)Often-asserted role of feminist critics is to enlarge and reorder, displace the literary canon- a set of works which by a cumulative consensus have come to be considered ‘major’ as the chief subjects of literary history, criticism, scholarship, and teaching. Feminist studies have brought to forefront many of the sidelined women writers: Anne Finch, George Sand, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Gaskell, Christina Rossetti, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Behn Lady, Mary Wortley Montagu, Joanna Baillie, Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and a number of African-American writers such as Zora Neale Hurston.Some feminists have concentrated on lesbian writers.American and English critics have engaged in empirical and thematic studies of writings by and about women. In France prominent critics have occupied themselves with the ‘theory’ of the role of gender in writing within the poststructuralist frame of reference, Lacan’s reworkings of Freudian psychoanalysis in terms of Saussure’s linguistic theory. English-speaking feminists show demonstrable and specific evidences in which male bias is encoded in our linguistic conventions. E.g. ‘man’, ‘mankind’ for human beings, chairman or spokesman for people of either sex, he and his to refer back to gender neutral nouns like God, human being, child inventor, author, poet.French feminists argue that all western languages are irredeemably male-gendered, male-constituted and male-dominated. According to Lacan Discourse is ‘phallogocentric’- It is centred and organised throughout by implicit recourse to the phallus (symbolic) both as its supposed ‘logos’ or ground, and as its prime signifier and power-source. Phallogocentrism manifests itself in Western discourse not only in its vocabulary and syntax, rigorous rules of logic, proclivity for fixed classifications and oppositions, and its criteria to choose valid evidence and objective knowledge. The basic problem for French theorists is to establish the very possibility of a woman’s language that will not, when a woman writes, automatically be appropriated into this phallogocentric language for such appropriation forces her into complicity with the linguistic features that impose on females a condition of marginality and subservience, or even of linguistic non-entity.To evade this dilemma, Helene Cixous posits the existence of an incipient ‘feminine writing’ with its source in the mother, in that stage of the mother-child relation before the child acquires the male-centred verbal language. Thereafter, this prelinguistic potentiality in the unconscious manifests undermine and subvert the fixed signification, the logic, and the ‘closure’ of our phallocentric language, and open out into a joyous freeplay of meanings. Luce Irigaray posits a ‘woman’s writing’ which evades the male monopoly and the risk of appropriation into the existing system by establishing as its generative principle, in place of monolithic phallus, the diversity, fluidity and multiple possibilities inherent in the structure and erotic functioning of the female sexual organs and in the distinctive nature of female sexual experiences. Julia Kristeva posits a ‘Chora’, or prelinguistic, pre-oedipal, and unsystematized signifying process, centred on the mother, that she labels ‘semiotic’. This process is repressed as we acquire the father-controlled, syntactically ordered, and logical language that she calls ‘symbolic’. The semiotic process can break out in a revolutionary way as in avant-garde poetry, whether written by a women or by men- as a ‘heterogeneous destructive causality’ that disperses the authoritarian ‘subject’ that strikes free of the oppressive order and rationality of our standard discourse which as the product of the ‘law of the Father’ consigns women to a negative and marginal status. In recent years a number of feminists have used poststructuralist positions and techniques to question the founding concepts of feminism itself. They point out the existence of differences and adversarial strands within the supposedly monolithic history of patriarchal discourse, and emphasise the inherent linguistic instability in the basic conceptions of ‘woman’ or ‘the feminine’ as well as the diversities within these supposedly universal and uniform female identities that result from differences in race, class, nationality, and historical situation. The volume of literature both critical and creative as well women’s studies in academia a increasing by the day. The concern with the effects of sexual innovations of the last several decades, the concern with the effects of sexual differences in the writing, interpretation, analysis and assessment of literature seems destined to have the most prominent and enduring effects on literary history, criticism, and academic instruction, as conducted by men as well as women.

Reference:Abrams, MH. A Glossary of Literary Terms.

1 comment:

Nilisha Mohapatra, III PSEng said...

The Article is helpful Mr.Pinto. Thank You!