Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Monique Wittig--The Straight Mind and Other Essays (1992)

In what Wittig characterizes as a materialist lesbian approach to heterosexuality, she “describe[s] heterosexuality not as an institution but as a political regime which rests on the submission and the appropriation of women,” a regime from which there is no escape (xiiv).  The only response to such an entrenched regime is nothing short of the political, philosophical, and symbol destruction of the categories of “men” and “women” (xiiv-xiv).  By defining “woman” in political terms, Wittig wishes to dissociate “‘women’ (the class within which we fight) and ‘woman,’ the myth” (15), and subsequently “suppress men as a class…[through] a political struggle” (15).  To Wittig, the primary failing of Marxism was its failure to see individual subjects historically situated: “It is we who must undertake the task of defining the individual subject in materialist terms” (19).  Further, in her indictment of (French) psychoanalytic theory, she importantly observes that in the midst of such theoretical work, “we forget the material (physical) violence that they directly do to the oppressed people” (25).  Wittig’s example of such violence (in her 1980 essay) is that of pornography, an analysis which has been addressed in much more complex ways than how she addresses it: to Wittig, all pornography demonstrates the oppression of women by men within a heterosexual economy.  However, it is within her discussion of pornography that she first uses the phrase “the straight mind,” which “develops a totalizing interpretation of history, social reality, culture, language, and all the subjective phenomena at the same time…[which has a] tendency to immediately universalize its production of concepts into general laws which claim to hold true to all societies, all epochs, all individuals” (27).
Important to my work is her discussion of the foundation of the marriage economy: “The compulsory reproduction of the ‘species’ by women is the system of exploitation on which heterosexuality is economically based” (6).  In her discussion of the necessity of problematizing any ideas of the categories of man and woman as natural, she states that “what we take for the cause or origin of oppression is in fact only the mark imposed by the oppressor: the ‘myth of woman,’ plus its material effects and manifestations in the appropriated consciousness and bodies of women” (11).  As the lesbian does not fit into the marriage economy, Wittig sees the lesbian as rejecting the role of women.  Borrowing a term from Prous, Wittig says, “The lesbian has to be something else, a not-woman, a not-man, a product of society, not a product of nature, for there is no nature in society….The refusal to become (or to remain) heterosexual…is the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of a man” (13).
Also intriguing is her discussion of “feminine writing,” a French feminist concept of which Wittig is quite critical: “What is this ‘feminine’ in ‘feminine writing’?  It stands for Woman, thus merging a practice with a myth, the myth of Woman” (59).  But as she does with the categories of men, women, and lesbian, as well as Marxist, psychoanalytic, and linguistic perspectives, she is not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Rather, she identifies what is useful about each of these perspectives and fills her arsenal with their tools.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Jonathan Ned Katz--The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995)

Katz’s text builds on the gay studies movement of the 1970s, especially works by Joseph Epstein and Foucault.  After his work on recovering a history of homosexuality, in this text he moves on to challenge three “arguments [about] our idea of an age-old heterosexuality: (1) a procreate-or-perish imperative makes heterosexuality a necessity everlasting; (2) all societies recognize basic distinctions between human females and males, girls and boys, women and men—those biological and cultural differences are the source of an immortal sexuality that is hetero; (3) the bodily pleasure generated by female and male conjunctions remains the unchanging basis of an eternal heterosexuality” (14).  He goes on to claim that “heterosexuality is not identical to the reproductive intercourse of the sexes; heterosexuality is not the same as the sex distinctions and gender differences; heterosexuality does not equal the eroticism of women and men.  Heterosexuality, I argue, signifies one particular historical arrangement of the sexes and their pleasures” (14).  Katz also distinguishes between “sexual reproduction, sex difference, and sexual pleasure,” noting that they “have been produced and combined in different social systems in radically different ways” (14).  Katz also acknowledges not only what he has gained from recent feminist approaches to history, especially the awareness of how gender, race, and status have influenced the narratives which have been told and assumptions which have been made about heterosexuality.
He begins with the work of doctors like Krafft-Ebing at the turn of the century, who took a medical approach to sexuality.  It was at this point (in the 1890s) that the idea that the sexual instinct was identified as a procreative desire was being challenged by “a new different-sex pleasure ethic” (19).  In his discussion of Kraff-Ebing, he points out that “the term ‘contrary sexual feeling’ presupposed the existence of a non-contrary ‘sexual feeling,’ the term ‘sexual inversion’ presupposed a noninverted sexual desire. From the start of this medicalizing, ‘contrary’ and ‘inverted’ sexuality were problematized, [while] ‘sexual feeling’ was taken for granted” (55).  After Krafft-Ebing comes Freud, who put pleasure—rather than reproduction—at the center of human sexual feeling and behavior.  Importantly, Freud’s ideas of the libido, drives, instincts, and impulses demonstrate a “desire for psychic satisfaction experienced in the flesh” (61).  I think this may be a very important point in terms of embodiment themes in literature.  However, Katz also notes that “Freud innovatively proposes the original and complete independence of erotic desire and erotic object” (61)—an important innovation, but one which requires careful consideration, because it’s easy to fall into a solipsistic way of thinking, failing to taking concepts such as intersubjectivity into account.
After discussing the solidification of the other-sex pleasure centrality to twentieth-century sexuality and its role in cementing heterosexuality as the normative mode (as well as the change in understanding of heterosexuality from its existence as a medical term meaning morbid attachment to nonprocreative sexuality to its meaning today, Katz turns to the feminist contribution to the critiquing and problematizing of heterosexuality, observing that much feminist work (looking at specifically at liberal and radical feminist commentaries from 1963 and 1975) “critically probe not only male supremacy but the social arrangement of heterosexuality” (113).  While Katz is a fan of second wave feminist critiques of heterosexuality, he observes that many of these critics (such as Monique Wittig, to name only one) “fall[] prey to the equation of heterosexuality with reproduction,” failing to see that pleasure-oriented, Freudian heterosexuality is actually at the heart of the heterosexual social organization of which they otherwise provide incisive critiques (157).  Ultimately, Katz says that,
I don’t think that the invention of the word heterosexual, and the concept, created a different-sex erotic.  I do think that the doctors’ appropriation of the word and idea of heterosexuality newly and publicly legitimated the previously existing but officially condemned different-sex eroticism of the middle class.  The word heterosexual, and the concept, then helped to re-create this sexed eroticism as, specifically, “heterosexual” within a new, specifically “heterosexual” society. (181).
Katz’s vision of modern-day heterosexuality is one that ultimately emerged out changing view of sexuality from a nineteenth century understanding of sexual desire as based in procreation to one (and one specifically attributed to a rising American middle class with falling birth rates and rising divorce rates) which had pleasure at its center.  Katz goes even further in his conclusion, claiming that “Heterosexual and homosexual refer to a historically specific system of domination—of socially unequal  sexes and eroticisms” (189).  As “feminists have recently shown us that sexual anatomy does not determine  our gender destinies…neither does biology determine our erotic fates” (190).refer to a historically specific system of domination—of socially unequal  sexes and eroticisms” (189).  As “feminists have recently shown us that sexual anatomy does not determine  our gender destinies…neither does biology determine our erotic fates” (190).

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Ralph Ellison-Invisible Man (1952)

This novel follows an unnamed (though he goes by two different names over the course of the novel) narrator from his education at an uplift school for African Americans to his work for civil rights in Harlem.  It’s a novel of anger and violence which doesn’t shirk from illustrating not only horrors of racism but also the shortcomings of black nationalism and Marxism and the legacy of leaders such as Booker T. Washington.  The novel opens with a sickeningly violent scene in which the narrator is forced to fight blindfolded with other black men for the amusement of the rich white men who fund his education.  The black men are tortured by the white men with the promise of money and prestige, a theme which undergirds much of the book.  After the narrator’s failure to properly entertain one of the white patrons of his southern school, he goes north in search of the freedom which the myth of the north promises.  Once there, he is recruited by the Brotherhood, an organization run by whites which is dedicated to racial uplift.  Like he was at school, the narrator is seduced by promises of success which turn out to be empty, as any real progress he is able to make are thwarted by the Brotherhood’s claims of larger goals.  The novel ends with the narrator abandoned by the Brotherhood, attacked by black nationalists, and literally living under ground as an invisible man.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Richard Gray--Southern Aberrations: Writers of the American South and the Problems of Regionalism (2000)

Gray addresses the questions of southern regionalism in literature by looking at “writers who, for very different reasons, have found their involvement with the American South particularly problematical” (ix).  Beginning with Edgar Allan Poe, and looking at authors such as Ellen Glasgow, the Agrarians, Erskine Caldwell, Appalachian authors, and contemporary southern writers who address social change such as Lee Smith, Harry Crews, and Barry Hannah (among many others).  He addresses the Agrarian codification of the southern literary canon, noting that Allen Tate in particular “was trying to rewrite literary history from a self-consciously reactive position just as much as, in his social and political essays, he was trying to reinvent the broader history of the West from a stance of equally self-conscious reaction” (97).  He then addresses subsequent canonical Southern criticism texts and examines what has been omitted from the traditions and why.  Throughout, he examines how such authors, most of whom have definite ties to the South (and write about the South) negotiate their vexed relationship to the region, often in terms of their participation in (or lack) of social criticism, awareness of social problems, or the ways in which they address the history of racial violence.
While Cash (among others) identified that “Southern white women of the privileged classes have customarily been associated with the ‘very notion’ of the region…black women were assigned the sexual function: that is, they became those with whom the sexual dimension of experience was habitually and mythically associated” (23).  Echoing Mr. Compson in Absalom, he discusses the paradox that Southern women are considered both bodiless as well as marked by blood, a contradiction which requires a certain kind of repression “when women are transformed into ‘ladies,’ drained of blood and all intimations of corporeal or sexual life, dressed in white and placed on a pedestal” (24).  He invokes Kristeva’s definition of femininity as “that which is marginalized by the patriarchal symbolic order” (quoted page 24), and says that, “To the extent that they are within the order, shielding it from an imagined chaos, they can be seen as precious guardians of the law; to the extent that they are outside, however, in contact with that chaos, they can be seen as creatures of turbulence and darkness—not preventing chaos but partaking of it, even encouraging it to come again” (25).  He then brings up Mary Douglas’s ideas of purity and dirt, noting that while traditional southern white women in literature “have all the insubstantiality that any self-respecting Southern white male…might have expected[,]…at crucial moments, they prove themselves unclean, the blood breaks through….it a blood that reminds us that they are, finally, of the earth, earthly” (25).
His discussion of Mildren Haun’s female characters is interesting: “Haun’s stories describe a community in which women can have strange powers—to put ‘a sure witch sign’ on someone they disapprove of, for instance—but where they remain, in the last analysis, powerless” (294).  Further, “Haun was convinced of the conflicted status of her sex in traditional hill culture.  The women in these stories draw whatever strength they possess, not so much from the concreteness of the natural world as from the vitality of custom; their belief in themselves flows from their tapping into the wellsprings of magic and ritual.  Their powerlessness, however, issues from the same source” (295). 
Gray’s analysis of Harry Crews sees him as the progeny of O’Connor.  “Crews deploys freaks to defamiliarize, to expose what may be concealed by the tyranny of habit and so make us see how remarkable, how truly strange, the supposedly normal can be” (402).  What’s important to me in his discussion of contemporary southern lit such as Crews is his discussion of the “postsouthern”: “these ‘postsouthern’ people live not so much in the stream of history as on its margins from where, like compulsive voyeurs, they watch everything that passes with a glazed sense of uninvolvement.  Their problem, really, is not like that of their predecessors, an excess of narrative (an excess flowing from the conviction that the past is never dead), but rather its absence, the suspicion that no stories or ceremonies apply, that there are no more tales worth telling or parts worth playing” (433).  This really echoes my own idea of the “postmythic” South, one in which we no longer believe in the old stories—but I think my position is a bit more overtly optimistic, as I see the continuation of southern literature as proof that there are new stories to tell.  Of course, it’s dangerous to use the word “optimistic” even in the same paragraph as Harry Crews’s name.
To Gray’s concluding question, “Why does Southern self-fashioning continue?” he cites Welty: “It is a matter of language and communal ritual: the human habit of positioning the self with the help of the word and others—giving a local habitation and a name to things to secure their and our identity, and establishing a connection or kinship with other people that is also an anchorage, a validation of oneself” (504).  Ultimately, southerners are driven “to position themselves with others in their locality, communality of interest or area, and against or apart from others elsewhere” (511).

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Michael Warner--The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (1999)

Warner’s book is particularly notable to read from the vantage point of 2012, after DOMA has been repealed, marriage equality has been achieved in some states, and the President has expressed his own support for marriage equality.  In his larger analysis of the push for marriage equality for same-sex couples, Warner argues that “this strategy is a mistake and that it represents a widespread loss of vision in the movement” (vii).  His primary focus is on the lack of sexual autonomy allowed in America: “because sex is an occasion for losing control, for merging one’s consciousness with the lower orders of animal desire and sensation, for raw confrontations of power and demand, it fills people with aversion and shame” (2).
Warner describes those who do not fit into accepted paradigms of sexual norms as being “rendered inarticulate” (3), and that the “politics of shame” leads to the “unthinkability of…desire” (7), an observation which echoes Butler’s discussion of those with unintelligible identities.  Warner is quite critical of movements in support of gay marriage, which Warner sees as not only selling out the queer community, but undermining its own position by ignoring its history and trying to assimilate into the straight community: “Instead of broadening its campaign against sexual stigma beyond sexual orientation, as I think it should, it has increasingly narrowed its scope to those issues of sexual orientation that have least to do with sex” (25).  Throughout this work, Warner evokes that of Erving Goffman’s work on stigma (which I plan to read soon), drawing parallels between the difference between shame and stigma and that between sin and identity—stigma being a physical mark, while sin is more ephemeral (perverse acts versus perversion) (28-29).
Warner gives extended consideration to the very idea of marriage, how it elevates certain relationships above others, bestowing privileges upon some and not others.  It also provides regulation over sex, as many who have argued for gay marriage (Andrew Sullivan draws quite  a bit of Warner’s ire) have made the case that legalizing gay marriage will lead to more monogamy among gay people, taming the gay community.  Warner does not villainize those who support gay marriage, however, noting that the “tendency to reproduce the hierarchy of shame, I believe, results from the structuring conditions of gay and lesbian politics, and not from the bad intentions of the people who devote their lives to activism within the movement” (49).  For my own project, I’m really starting to think about not only the idea of intelligibility in general (which I think is an important concept), but the question (and stakes) of the marriage economy, and who is eligible for it.  Ugly women are marked—stigmatized—as uneligible for marriage (Lily Daw first comes to mind).  In the same way that Warner argues the queer community should question the very foundations of marriage itself, rather than try to assimilate into it—such as those who pursue marriage for health benefits, childcare, and other current marks of privilege—and perhaps continue to pose a threat to the system, rather than try to assimilate into it.  Warner also echoes Joyce Carol Oates’s them to me in his discussion of marriage and the benefits of privilege, especially as he quotes Claudia Card: “Yet if marrying became an option that would legitimate behavior otherwise illegitimate and make available to us social securities that will not doubt become even more important to us as we age, we and many others like us might be pushed into marriage.  Marrying under such conditions is not a totally free choice” (107)[1] .  I think I’d like think more about ugliness as being a mark of unintelligibility—perhaps appearance as articulation?  Beauty as a necessary component of interpellation?

[1] Quoting “Claudia Card, “Against Marriage and Motherhood,” Hypatia 11.3 (Summer 1996): 1-23, p. 7.