Space, Time and Perversion
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Space, Time and Perversion

Essays on the Politics of Bodies

Elizabeth Grosz

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eBook - ePub

Space, Time and Perversion

Essays on the Politics of Bodies

Elizabeth Grosz

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Exploring the fields of architecture, philosophy, and queer theory, Grosz shows how feminism and cultural analysis have conceptually stripped bodies of their specificity, their corporeality, and the vestigal traces of their production as bodies. She investigates the work of Michel Foucault, Teresa de Lauretis, Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler and Alphonso Lingi, considering their work by examining the ways in which the functioning of bodies transforms understandings of space and time, knowledge and desire. Grosz moves toward a radical consideration of bodies and their relationship to transgression and perversity.

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(Part One)
Bodies and Knowledges

Sexual Signatures

Feminism After the Death of the Author
The “subject” of writing does not exist, if we mean by that some sovereign solitude of the author. The subject of writing is a system of relations between strata. 
In order to describe the structure, it is not enough to recall that one always writes for someone; and the oppositions sender-receiver, code-message, etc., remain extremely coarse instruments. We would search the “public” in vain for the first reader: i.e., the first author of a work. And the csociology of literature’ is blind to the war and the ruses perpetrated by the author who reads and by the first reader who dictates, for at stake here is the origin of the work itself. The sociality of writing as drama requires an entirely different discipline.
—Derrida, 1978: 226–27
THERE IS A VEXING PROBLEM THAT TODAY seems to be at the heart of many feminist, literary, and philosophical texts, a problem related to their modes of self-representation and self-understanding. After more than twenty-five years, feminist theory has gained a measure of academic and social legitimacy, as well as political and cultural weight. The time has come for it to reflect on and critically understand its own methods and assumptions, its objects of investigation and tools of research. This entails a critical awareness of both its various techniques, its “raw materials,” data, or contents, and the ways it transforms these materials—in short, its particular theoretical modes of production. It is thus surprising, and a little disconcerting, that feminist theory tends to be committed to a notion of textuality and, consequently, a mode of politics, which commonly goes unexamined. It is crucial that feminists—and not just those working in the fields of literature and language—now turn to the question of the status and nature of textuality, if feminism is to understand not only what a feminist text is but, as significantly, what constitutes a patriarchal text, what the possible (and actual) relations between them are, as well as what the political investments feminism itself has in trying to set up a clear-cut and definitive separation between its products and those of the patriarchal orthodoxy it seeks to undermine.
By what criteria can we say that a text is feminist, or feminine? How is a feminist text to be distinguished from the patriarchal or phallocentric mainstream within which we locate it and where it finds its context? What is distinctive about it such that we can say that it is subversive or transgressive of its representational milieu? These questions not only raise the methodological and political issue of the ways in which feminist theory is different from (or even better than?) the traditional or patriarchal knowledges it attempts to criticize and displace, but also of its status as a mode of policing, a mode of intellectual self-regulation, that adjudicates what gets included as feminist and what does not. The same sorts of questions that were once directed by (white, usually middle-class) feminists to traditional male texts and masculine disciplines can now, perhaps more alarmingly and disappointingly, be raised about feminist theory’s own intellectual and political self-representations and policing tactics.1
Many of the more common and self-evident answers to these questions do not hold up well under critical scrutiny. However, some suggestions posed by Derrida in his writings on signature, and Benveniste in his account of the relations of subjectivity in language,2 might well prove useful in elaborating this complex set of issues so vital for feminist conceptions of textuality, for feminist political and cultural interventions into knowledge, writing, and production of all kinds.
Here I wish to explore some possible answers to the question of what distinguishes a feminist from a patriarchal text, drawn from feminist literature, to critically evaluate their merits and problems, and to raise the question of alternatives. In doing so, I do not speak as literary or cultural theorist, but rather as one trained in one of the most text-phobic of disciplines, philosophy. Nevertheless, I hope that my scattered remarks may prove relevant to those working in a number of disciplines (and interdisciplines) constituting the broad field of feminist theory. The question of the status and categorization of feminist texts is central to how feminists proceed in their various strategic battles within the university and its peripheral apparatuses, as well as in cultural studies. I hope to show that many of the more conventional positions regarding the categorization and assessment of feminist (and patriarchal) texts are problematic in feminist terms; yet, at the same time, following the hints posed by many post-structuralist thinkers,3 I also hope to move beyond critique and formulate new conceptions of textual production and reception that may help to explain the ways in which political judgements about the textual and sexual positioning of theories and texts may be possible. My goals are both methodological and political: I am interested in how, from what positions, and with what effects we are able to judge statements and discourses, and how we are able to use statements and discourses to do things, to effect changes, to challenge prevailing and problematic norms governing textuality. In short, my goal will be to examine and pose the question of the materiality of texts and the relations between this materiality and the materiality that comprises subjects, the subjects of writing, and reading practices.
Before proceeding, I would like to explain, at least in a preliminary way, how I will be using two concepts central to my arguments. By “texts” I mean the products of any kind of discursive practice, whether poetic, literary, philosophical, scientific, visual, tactile or performative—that is, any tangible network of signs that exhibits a “grammar” and “syntax,” and finds its context or milieu in other texts within a broadly similar sign-system. I will not privilege one mode of textuality over another, for example, the verbal or linguistic over the visual or the performative. And when I refer sometimes to “feminist texts,” sometimes to “feminine texts,” and sometimes to “women’s texts,” I am purposely being vague. Exploring the relations between “women’s texts” (texts written by women, largely for women), “feminine texts” (those written from the point of view of feminine experience or in a style culturally designated as feminine), and “feminist texts” (those which self-consciously challenge the methods, objects, goals, or principles of mainstream patriarchal canons) is precisely my purpose here. I hope that by linking the question of textual production to conceptions of the sexually specific signature and the sexually specific body, if not to answer the question of what is a feminist or feminine text, then at least to provide some grounds on which positions may be possible.
What, then, enables us to describe a text as feminist or feminine? In the feminist literature surrounding this question, there seem to be four broad types of answers to this question: 1) the sex of the author; 2) the content of the text; 3) the sex of the reader; and 4) the style of the text. None of these crude answers seems satisfactory. I will look briefly at each in turn, indicating what I find problematic. Nevertheless, the grounds for a possible answer may well be developed using insights and clues provided from the ways in which each of these approaches have analysed the feminism or femininity of feminist texts.
The sex of the author. The assumption that the sex of the author is some indication, if not guarantee, of the text’s position as feminist or feminine is a common one, made by many feminists in the 1970s and 1980s, and remains a commitment of many today who adopt what I would call the “women and
” approach, or maintaining a radical separation between the representation and its “real” referent (here I include such diverse thinkers as Dale Spender, Patricia Meyers Spacks, Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert, and Susan Gubar, and, in perhaps a more sophisticated form, Evelyn Fox Keller, Sandra Harding, Nancy K. Miller, Nancy Fraser, Rosi Braidotti, Lois McNay, and Susan Bordo), who may share little in common besides subscribing to a rupture or gulf between textual representations and that which they represent, between the textual representations of women, and “real women.”4 In spite of varying degrees of sophistication, and a number of extremely important insights developed by this rather diverse body of thinkers, there is an assumption that knowing the sex of the author—a real individual situated outside of and beyond the text she produces—enables us to say that the texts she produces are feminist. A text’s feminine status depends on who writes it. Spacks, for example, asks the crucial question: “So what is a woman to do, setting out to write about women? She can imitate men in her writing or strive for an impersonality beyond sex, but finally she must write as a woman: what other way is there?” (Spacks, 35). She compiles a list of female authors in order to examine what they have in common, which she calls “the female imagination.” Miller, to take another more recent example, wants to claim that one’s reading of a text depends on empirical information about the author as concrete sexed subject, a “real” man or woman, in a sophisticated resurrection of the correspondence between the real and its representation.5 In taking women per se as her object of investigation, whether as authors, creators, or agents—a project with which I have no disagreement in certain contexts6—this kind of approach nevertheless leaves texts largely unexplained.7 I will list some of the more disturbing problems I see with this approach.
Perhaps the most relevant counterbalance to the privileging of the author is Roland Barthes’s well-known proclamation of the “death of the author” (Barthes, 1977), and Foucault’s materialist analysis of what he calls “the author function” (Foucault, 1977a); that is, their claim that judging a text in terms of its author’s intentions, wishes, biography, historical location, sociological position, and so on is an attempt to fix and control the meaning and inherent ambiguity of a text, what Foucault describes as the “ponderous, awesome materiality” of texts, their explosive potential. The author is postulated to provide an explanation of the origins of a text, and to ensure its unity and homogeneity. Barthes argues:
The Author, when believed in, is always conceived of as the past of his own book: book and author stand automatically on a single line divided into a before and an after. The Author is thought to nourish the book, which is to say that he exists before it, thinks, suffers, lives for it, is in the same relation of antecedence to his work as a father to his child. In complete contrast, the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as its predicate; there is no other time than that of enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now. (Barthes, 1977: 145, emphasis added)
The author’s intentions, emotions, psyche, and interiority are not only inaccessible to readers, they are likely to be inaccessible to the author herself. For Barthes and Foucault, as for Derrida, a text cannot be the expression of an individual’s interior, nor simply the representation of some social exterior, for it is as an act of writing, the material manipulation of signs, discursive structures, textual elements, an act of inscription, with its own protocols, modes of constraint, and regulation. The author’s signature, as Derrida argues, is not a full presence that somehow stands outside the text, while finding itself reflected inside the text as a mark of the author’s propriety, ownership over, or singular connection with the text.8 Neither quite outside the text nor at home within it, the signature is a trace resonating and disseminating the textual exterior with its interior. The relation between exterior and interior is not a mapping or correspondence of the kind that Spacks, and others, seek. There is no carry-over—or at least no simple carry-over—of the person writing the text, the author, and what she writes within the text. The signature, as preeminently forgeable, transformable, iterable, recontextualizable, provides no guarantee of authenticity, no residue of the full presence of the subject’s politics. In short, the signature signs on/as the subject as much as it signs the text in the subject’s proper name.
Paradoxically, the signature is the possibility of the infinite repetition of what is unique and irreplaceable: “The drama that activates and constructs every signature is this insistent, unwearying, potentially infinite repetition of something that remains, every time, irreplaceable.” (Derrida, 1984a: 20). The signature is not self-contained and given, cannot be a presence-to-itself, for it always requires a counter-signature, a reception, an other to sign for it.9
Perhaps most importantly, as Spacks herself half-acknowledges, and in a way that Miller doesn’t adequately address, a text can readily have a female author who nonetheless writes “as a man”; that is, who writes according to prevailing patriarchal norms, in a mode of sexual neutrality, sexual indifference. It is, then, not simply a matter of being a woman that guarantees that an author produce a feminist text. Nor is it simply a matter of being, outside, in “everyday life,” a feminist. Whatever attitudes women may have to their status as women, this psychological and sociological designation is quite independent of a woman’s authorial status. One could be a committed feminist activist, for example, and intend to produce a feminist text without succeeding in doing so. Conversely, it seems to me plausible that a man, or a male-identified woman, could in principle, even if rarely in fact, produce a feminist text. This depends less on what they do extra-discursively, “in real life,” than what of their masculinity they put at risk in their texts. The status, and sex, or the “gender identifications” of the author have little, if any, direct relation to the status of the texts produced.
The content of the text. If the authors sex or gender identifications do not provide an index to a text’s feminist (or non-feminist) status, then perhaps it is the “content” of the text, what the text is “about,” what it refers to, what its object of reflection, description or speculation might be, that provides some indication of its feminist or feminine status. The question thus becomes: Is there a distinctively feminist or feminine set of objects, contents, in feminist texts? Is there a series of preferred themes, preoccupations or concerns that feminist texts share in common? This way of formulating it makes the proposal circular: is there in fact a common set of contents to feminist texts? If there is not, what enables them to be classified as feminist? If there is, isn’t this already presumed in designating such texts as feminist?
Many feminists have posited what might be understood as a “distinctive set of preoccupations” in feminist or women’s writing and creativity. Once again, Spacks can be taken as representative here. She claims that the feminist or feminine text reflects the distinctive interests occupying women’s lives:

for readily discernible historical reasons, women have characteristically concerned themselves with matters more or less peripheral to male concerns, or at least slightly skewed from them. The differences between traditional female preoccupations and roles and male ones make a difference in female writing. Even if a woman wishes to demonstrate her essential identity with male interests and ideas, the necessity of making the demonstration, contradicting the stereotype, allies her initially with her sisters. And the complex nature of the sisterhood emerges in the books it has produced. (Spacks, 7)
The female or feminine novel is the one that reflects womens often contradictory, patriarchal roles: the production of the domestic novel, the realist portrait, and the play of manners are reflections and effects of the pre-twentieth-century social confinement of womens experience to domesticity. The kinds of concerns that preoccupy the majority of women—or perhaps, those forbidden to women—might be the very ones which serve to characterize womens writing. Perhaps, it is argued, their shared experience of sequestration means that many women share a common “sensibility.” Variations of this position are not confined to literary studies. This position has, through the writings of Nancy Chodorow and other feminist object-relations theorists, formed the basis of feminist epistemology. Evelyn Fox Keller and Sandra Harding claim, among other things, that there is a distinctively feminine approach to the production of knowledge.
There are as many problems as with the preceding category. This second category also depends on the notion of the female author in specifying and opening up to empirical investigation what the major objects of women’s writing actually are. Perhaps most striking is the assumption that women are a largely homogeneous group who share a number of experiences and perspectives that they make the basis for representations. On the one hand, it seems unlikely to me that women, as culturally, geographically, politically, and historically diverse as they are, do in fact share common experiences (whether based on early childhood or any other life stage)—women’s experiences are as varied as mens. And on the other hand, to claim that women write only on the basis of their experience, and to claim that these experiences are only the result of women’s patriarchal subordination (no others count), is to impose a preset limit on women’s writing: it must always remain reactive, a writing tied to oppression, based on ressentiment.
There is no special set of objects or topics that define women’s writings or interests: it is perfectly plausible that any object or content, ranging from nuclear physics to stock market fluctuations, could be dealt with in a feminist manner. In any case, whenever one does specify a distinctive set of “women’s issues”—even those most intimately tied to women’s experiences, there is nothing to prevent me...