Sunday, August 14, 2011

Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory

Routledge of the Taylor & Francis Group of London and New York, working within its New Accents series (the General Editor being Terence Hawkes), publishes the second edition of Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory by Toril Moi in 2002. (The first edition is published by Methuen & Co. Ltd. and comes out in 1985.) According to Moi, “Sexual/Textual Politics is based on the idea that any theory that sets out to define women’s essence or women’s nature is detrimental to the goal of feminism: to obtain freedom and equality for women” (175). As a feminist and a university professor, Moi gathers into one volume a collection of critical analyses regarding the eminent figures and developments of contemporary feminism. She looks into how feminist criticism and philosophy influence the feminist political movements as well as the reactions that feminists have to those influences. She introduces the reader to the dilemma surrounding Virginia Woolf. Then, she divides the subsequent discussion into two parts: Anglo-American feminist criticism and French feminist theory. In the first part, she focuses on the objectives of the “politically committed activists” of the United States and Great Britain (21). Moi mentions Kate Millett, Mary Ellmann, Annette Kolodny, Elaine Showalter, Myra Jehlen, and others that have contended against the patriarchal system and have striven for a woman-centered perspective. In the second part, the tone changes into a philosophical and theoretical discussion involving Simone de Beauvoir, Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. These figures in turn mention other critics like Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx, philosophers that have set the foundation for feminists to build upon or siege against. Their topics range from patriarchal binary thought to mysticism and from language to sexism. With an accompanying list of references and a basic index in this book, any reader interested in learning about feminist literary theory has a great point to start from.

I do not consider myself a feminist, even though I believe in the equality of the sexes. I believe there are many things that disqualify me from even discussing issues related to feminists. Yet I realize that we do not treat each other well sometimes. I shudder whenever one sex degrades another or tries to exert undue power over the other. I believe we are more alike than we know, yet different enough to keep things interesting. Other differences are things that we simply cannot choose. I think we come into problems if we try to completely separate the sexes into an antagonistic binary opposition. Extreme feminism and extreme chauvinism have the same goal in mind: to suppress and dominate the other side. So, even though feminists nobly follow their quest for female equality, they must be careful not to make the same mistakes that men have done, if and when they succeed in gaining their objectives.

Having said that, the issues brought up by Moi in her book clarify the tensions feminists seek to redress, whether through political action or interpreting literature. There are times when chauvinists need to be humbled from their arrogant and sexist attitudes; feminists can really sock it to them better than anyone else. Take for instance Moi’s explanation of Irigaray’s exposé of the male gaze: “The woman, for Freud as for other Western philosophers, becomes a mirror for his own masculinity. Irigaray concludes that in our society representation, and therefore also social and cultural structures, are products of what she sees as a fundamental hom(m)osexualité. The pun in French is on homo (‘same’) and homme (‘man’): the male desire for the same. The pleasure of self-representation, of her desire for the same, is denied women: she is cut off from any kind of pleasure that might be specific to her” (134). You try telling that to an archetypal chauvinist and see what happens!

In other matters, feminists seem to run into the same obstacle time and again: the patriarchal structure. It seems that no matter how hard feminists try, the male hegemony never loosens its grip on power and influence. On top of that, it has the advantages of “[banishing] from itself all conflict, contradiction and ambiguity” (8). With that in mind, eminent writers like the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, and Virginia Woolf cannot create from their female powers because they have to navigate within the male sphere. They become, in a sense, just like the men they try to avoid becoming: “In this humanist ideology the self is the sole author of history and of the literary text: the humanist creator is potent, phallic and male – God in relation to his world, the author in relation to his text” (8). There seems to be no goddess or female sphere upon which to rely.

In another section, Moi reinforces the line of thought that the creative process always belongs to the Apollonian god: “Gilbert and Gubar’s enquiry shows that in the nineteenth century (as still today) the dominant patriarchal ideology presents artistic creativity as a fundamentally male quality. The writer ‘fathers’ his text; in the image of the Divine Creator he becomes the Author – the sole origin and meaning of his work. […] [Therefore], creative women have a rough time coping with the consequences of such a phallocentric myth of creativity” (56).

Another feminist aspect I have learned from reading this book is that “no criticism is ‘value-free’, that we all speak from a specific position shaped by cultural, social, political and personal factors” (42). This goes along with ideas from phenomenology and theories on subjectivity. How can we truly be objective when we cannot step outside of the world that we inhabit and try to observe? To state any universal claim “is authoritarian and manipulative” and writers need “to supply the reader with all necessary information about the limitations of one’s own perspective at the outset” (42-43). Without knowing it, I have been including some “necessary information” in my reviews, an attribute approved by feminists. (Maybe I do qualify to discuss feminist issues, no?)

Another area of contention comes up in the problem of sexual identities. “It has long been an established practice among most feminists to use ‘feminine’ (and ‘masculine’) to represent social constructs (patterns of sexuality and behavior imposed by cultural and social norms), and to reserve ‘female’ and ‘male’ for the purely biological aspects of sexual difference” (64, emphasis in original). This argument has some weight, because I have noticed that attitudes and mannerisms that are frowned upon in one place are practiced and encouraged in another. I have even encouraged my nieces and nephews not to use belittling names to either boys or girls, because those names usually end up degrading the female sex. However, where is the line between what is gender and what is biology? If the trait is more biological than social, what is the point of fighting against something that half the world has not the choice to make? Is the patriarchal system necessarily a bad thing? The feminists and I have yet to answer those questions of nature versus nurture satisfactorily.

The above-mentioned debates come from the Anglo-American fashion of feminism. In the section dealing with French feminism, I have a lot more fun and feel less threatened by the philosophical ramblings. I especially like Hélène Cixous’s philosophy. She tends to explore the more abstract and mythical elements of feminism. Instead of confronting the male-dominated power structure, she searches for the female realm. Moi writes, “The voice of each woman, moreover, is not only her own, but springs from the deepest layers of her psyche: her own speech becomes the echo of the primeval song she once heard, […]. It is, in short, the Voice of the Mother, that omnipotent figure that dominates the fantasies of the pre-Oedipal baby” (112, emphasis in original). I could not but imagine Eve as the original “Voice of the Mother,” echoing across the canyons of time and progeny, and which every woman has an innate and intimate connection. The philosophy of Cixous reflects the poetic essences of Gabriela Mistral. (Read about Mistral’s poems in a book review that I have written by clicking here.)

Sexual/Textual Politics, although not exhaustive, is a great introduction into the world of feminist literary theory. Moi writes excellently and does not sound choppy like other compilers. I recommend this book for the academic crowd.


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