Notes by Jyotsna Subramaniam.
(NOTE: everything here is just a summary of notes and ideas pertaining to the chapter on feminist theory. I repeat, Summary. )
A (slightly subjective) introduction:
Anybody who’s somebody in the world of literature cannot claim a position of importance without having read Freud. And of course, anybody who has indeed read Freud will agree when I say he ...well, has certain rigid ideas about the functioning of the minds of bodies of women.
Let’s start from the very beginning. Derrida’s ideas about the ‘’phallogocentric’’ culture or systems are centred around binary opposites in which the right side is always preferred over the left, such as:
The last binary opposite obviously links these concepts to a primary metaphor of one being more powerful than the other, and effectively superior to the other. And Freud is just one person who used this to come up with ideas about how every heterosexual (let’s get to this bit a little later) , adult woman is neurotic. NEUROTIC.
Because according to Freud, girls have to make two major changes in their lives following the impact of the Oedipal period:
1. They must refrain from desiring their mothers ( men aren’t an exception to this one)
2. They must refrain from desiring women in general and must now shift all their sexual energy on the opposite sex.
This apparently, is too much for women to take, thus making any heterosexual adult woman a perfect client for any psychiatrist. This particular theory is not only offensive to women, but also undermines and attributes a certain derogatory value to homosexuals. Queer theory of course, takes off from here. But let’s take a look at feminist theory now, in particular Helene Cixous, and Luce Irigaray, and the inevitable thrashing they give Freudian theories, giving rise to a new domain in literary theory.
Before we examine these theorists however, it is important to understand a few things about feminist theory in general:
There is a major shift from looking at the prescribed status that gender gives women, to the understanding of women’s experiences and sexuality itself, whether in isolation or as expressed in literature. This has been the focal point of post structuralist feminist theory at large and to a certain extent, pre-post structuralist feminist theory.
Pre-post structuralist feminist theory: ( also referred to as the Anglo-American feminist approach)
-basic argument: Why has western literary tradition had difficulty in joining the words ‘’woman’’ and ‘’writer’’ together? Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar ask if the pen then, is a metaphorical equivalent of a penis.
-the predominance of this metaphor lies in the fact that women produce babies, who are of course mortal, while men produce great literary or artistic works that have an inherent immortal quality in them. This idea could be a possible response to the anxiety that men face in determining if a woman is carrying his child or someone else’s.
-therefore, Gilbert and Gubar ask with what part of the female anatomy women are supposed to produce immortal works of art and literature.
Post structuralist feminist theory:
- takes off from Lacanian ideology that in the symbolic order, the position of women is founded on ‘lack’, so women can’t misidentify with the phallus as the centre of the symbolic order.
- Therefore, since women are pushed to the margins of the symbolic order or centre, they are not strictly governed by the rules of the system and are free to do as they like. This freedom to escape the rules of the centre in a system is called ‘’jouissance.’’ In post structuralist terms, this refers to a pleasure that is beyond language / that cannot be expressed in language and effectively, something that becomes disruptive to the structure.
- Takes off from Freud and Lacan’s theories about women being neurotic( mentioned at the beginning )
- Woman must write woman. This means that women but both, write themselves about their own experiences and connect the signifier ‘woman’ to ‘I’ in a new way within the symbolic order.
- Argues against presupposing the superiority of either men or women over the other group, as this leads to suppression as well, thus effectively criticising structures that enforce gender dichotomies as being too oppressive, towards both men and women.
- Argues that women write and speak only from a masculine position , thus there has actually been no feminine writing. She introduces the concept of l’ecriture feminine, to refer to a notion of feminine writing that she sees as only being possible in poetry and that cannot be defined.
- A new sense of bisexuality is also advocated by Cixous, which she refers to as the non exclusion of either sex, which would become a deconstructing force to erase slashes in all binary opposites.
- The myth of Medusa , according to Cixous, can be analyzed as one that scares men into upholding the phallogocentric order.
- Demater-paternalization of the family system: Cixous sees the traditional family as a social unit that generating the ideas of castration and lack forming the feminine identity as created by Freud and Lacan. She thus wants to break up traditional systems so that the phallogocentric system won’t be recreated every time a child is born.
-Irigaray points out that female sexuality has always been defined in male terms, as well as always being described as passive, or lacking, and that males fill in the absences that females inherently experience.
- a central flaw in western ideology, she argues, is that nobody knows exactly how to talk about female sexuality as we are all constantly trying to find the one female sexual organ that corresponds to its male counterpart.
-commenting on Freud’s ideas on how women’s identities are based on lack, she argues that female anatomy is created in such a way that it can fulfil its lack by itself, that is, without the help of man. From this, she sees heterosexual intercourse as a violation of female sexuality, and calls it ‘rape’, and a tool of patriarchy. Consequently, she says that female desire can only truly be expressed in female terms, and advocates lesbianism.