Saturday, April 21, 2012

Kathryn R. Kent--Making Girls Into Women: American Women's Writing and the Rise of Lesbian Identity (2008)

Starting with the line from Little Women, in which Jo proclaims, “Mothers are the best lovers in the whole world, but I’d like to try all kinds,” Kathryn Kent looks at how the changing women’s culture at the turn of the century allowed for a new kind of emergent lesbian subjectivity.  Using authors such as Alcott, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well as the Girl Scout Handbook, Kent claims that these texts illustrate how a new semi-public, semi-private modality of space provided by scouting, boarding school, and similar entities allowed for a new kind of female-female bonding, an alternatively queer maternal one.
These texts reflect the growth of commodity capitalism in America, which was reflected in the urge for taxonomy and categorization at the time.  For example, Kent points out how the rise of the department store and catalogue “organizes or teaches consumers a specific kind of consumption.”  In addition to the kind of sexological categorization which was occurring at the time, Kent shows how commodity capitalism “demonstrate[s] another kind of codification of gender and sexuality occurred at the turn of the century: there are newly gendered ‘needs’ and ‘desires’ that are supposed to reflect the binary gender oppositions of compulsory heterosexuality.”  Importantly, “the domestic sphere serves within this system as a site for the production and reproduction, through consumption and display, of these norms” (149).  By showing the similarities between the category-driven subject-formation of the Girl Scout handbooks and novels of the 1920s (for example, she looks at the second edition of Scouting for Girls was published in 1920) and Djuna Barnes’s 1928 Ladies Almanack.  Kent identifies that, “In ways analogous to the Girl Scouts, the Almanack explicitly connects theories of mass production with the production of sexual subjectivity and also sees reading as a form of erotic recruitment” (126)—an observation which I have seen confirmed many times in literature, especially from this time period (including work by Virginia Woolf, in Radclyffe Hall, and even, I would argue, Quentin Crisp’s “Crisperanto”).
Much of this book works to critique and reconfigure the traditional oedipal configuration.  According to Kent, the “limits of the oedipal trajectory” include the inability to “view identification and desire and compatible” (101).  In other words, traditional oedipal understandings of desire do not take into account that one can both with to be as well as wish to be with another; identification and desire are not mutually exclusive.  This observation opens up entirely new ways of reading not only these texts of Sapphic modernism, but also more generally readings of romance fiction and even pornography.  In her discussion of the “pleasures of influence” between Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, for example, she identifies what she refers to as a “queer erotics of relation, or what I term ‘invitation,’ an erotics not based in subsuming the difference of the ‘other,’ but in preserving it” (210).  In looking at Moore and Bishop relative to such “queer erotics,” Kent is able to tie this dynamic to both their individual relationship as well as its connection to a larger dynamic of nationhood: “in moving from Moore to Bishop we shift from what I have argued the problems of the erotics of identification—the fact that such identification is often inseparable form other forms of imperial recruitment—to an erotics that tries to resist this impulse to reform the ‘other’ or the self” (210).  Again, subject-formation illuminates the fuzzy interstices of the public and the private.

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