|Jennifer J. Nuernberg||
May 13, 2002
"What strikes me," you said, "is that you're grappling with this here in 2002, on your own. The only reason you're writing about this is because you were able to choose a topic, not because it was assigned to you. What does this say about curriculums, graduate programs, and academia in general?" What strikes me, I respond, is that I've earned a bachelor's degree in English/Creative Writing, am nearing my third year in the Master of Fine Arts program, a liberal thirty-one year old woman, well-versed in all kinds of writing, from poetry to scholarship, and I'm just hearing for the very first time these conversations about the dangers and delights of women's writing.
Better late than never. And it does, it absolutely does, get better and better. So thank you for your encouragement, your assurance that what I have to say about it all does indeed matter and that women in scholarship need to hear from those of us still in the trenches battling with these issues. Thank you for being even a little bit pushy about listening to what these women are already saying, but most of all, for leading me straight to these inspiring, thought-provoking conversations going on about me.
A Journal Entry
There has been a sudden and unexpected shift in the weather. Just the other day, we had record high temperatures. The cement was already too hot for bare feet. Today, a chilly breeze blew across campus, bringing down the heavy petals of magnolias everywhere. There has been a sudden and unexpected shift in my imagination lately, too. I'm thinking in new ways about discourse and writing. But this essay, like the hot sidewalk, makes me hop around and groan, complain about the climate. What good is kicking off your shoes if you can't walk around comfortably, without having to dance around the subject? This new way of thinking is supposed to free me up, I think, give me more room to stretch my thoughts out. Instead, it's like walking on hot concrete.
So I'm hearing a conversation that is fifteen years old, but it's all-new to me. Ellen Messer-Davidow, Jane Tompkins, and Gerald M. MacLean are talking about my recent difficulty with writing. I tune-in while the conversation is already underway. Jane is responding to Ellen's "The Philosophical Bases of Feminist Literary Criticisms" with her essay "Me and My Shadow." It's the best part of the discussion, I think, before I've even heard the others. Immediately, she says something that implicates me, a bit a truth that I had conveniently forgotten in my indictment of university curricula and their lack of feminist criticism in literature and writing courses. She reminds me too of a recent criticism I solicited in my genre theory class after making a naïve comment about "feminine writing."
Jane is defending her essay from "an accusation"
that she "was making the old patriarchal gesture of
representation' whose effect had been to marginalize women, thus
reinforcing the very stereotypes women and minorities have
fought so hard to overcome'" (23). She says, "I want
to reply to this objection because I think it is mistaken and
because it reproduces exactly the way I used to feel about feminist
criticism when it first appeared in the late 1960s" (23). I
am shocked at what she says next:
Hearing it again, I am still shocked. Not shocked at
what she says or that she says it, but stunned at how hard it
hits home. When I first began to hear about "feminism,"
when I used to see the slim "Women and Gender Studies"
class schedule while flipping through that thick course booklet,
I wanted nothing to do with it either. How pathetic, I thought
too, that women would feel the need to study themselves
and talk about themselves, as women. I was a woman,
yes, and had an affinity for women as well. As a matter
of fact, I thought at great depths about women, wrote about women,
and read women writers as often as I could. Still, something
about "feminism" rubbed me the wrong way, and Jane
pegged it perfectly. I was afraidafraid of being ridiculed,
of being ostracized, of being left out of the important places
and conversations. In short, I didn't want to call attention
to myself as a woman because my experience had already
proven that this is what happens to women who make big deals
about being women.
May 14, 2002
I am writing in response to your essay "Me and My Shadow." Yes, it is fifteen years later. Forgive me for my slow reply, but you must understand that I am only now finding out about feminist criticism and the straightjacket of patriarchal discourse. For that matter, I have only recently learned that latter term. At the risk of sounding ignorant, uneducated, or behind the times, I am saying these things now because your essay has liberated me so that I can hardly contain my voice. I am not ignorant, but naïve. I am certainly not uneducated, but still trudging through the vast and rugged wilderness of academia. And if I am indeed behind the times, it is only because I missed the faded and obscured signs pointing towards feminism as a nice place to visit (but who would want to live there?). You are absolutely right about being afraid. You are right, also, about being angry. It seems to me that being both angry and afraid is a terrible paradox, perhaps a more binding straightjacket than any of the others we wear.
I'm not so angry at the oppressors than I am with the principles under which they operate. I am not a victim of the old adage that women aren't supposed to be angry. I was not schooled in the ways of being "ladylike" at all. I was, and still consider myself to be, a tomboy. I sit according to what's the most comfortable position in a chair. Sometimes I slouch or sink down and stretch my legs out. Sometimes I assume even less "feminine" positions than that. I'm most at ease bare of makeup with hair pulled up out of my way. I curse and talk too loud and call women "girls." If I weren't a woman, I might very well be considered anti-feminist in many respects. I, too, have been criticized for supporting the patriarch, accused of not being "feminist" enough. I have for a long time confused the terms feminine and feminist. In the past, I saw them as absolute contradictions. Now I find myself wanting them to mean the same thing. I'm attached to my femininity, now more than ever, because I've fought long and hard to break out of the male-constructed notion of what it means to be feminine. Today, I adore my femininity. And I'm only now waking up to this new consciousness of feminism, and will not make any concessions from one to the other. I've made too many sacrifices already.
I'm OK with being angry. In fact, I get angry a lot these
daysangry with the principles of oppression that depended
on me being afraid to explore my own environment, to study myself
as a woman, to talk about myself as a woman, so that I would
hear words like patriarchal discourse and feminist theory and
finally become aware of the principles of oppression. Yes,
I neglected to read the subtle signs. I'm a little angry
with myself for that. The fact is, I could have taken a
Women & Gender Studies course way back in undergraduate schoolbut
I didn't. Now I'm three years into a masters degree program
that keeps these things confidential and on a need-to-know basis. It
was a fortunate mishap when I finally did come to know. Apparently,
the powers that be didn't think I needed to know. Even worse,
I didn't know that there was something that I needed to know. A
kindly young professor of genre theory happened to come along
and blow the thing wide open.
This is Not a Journal Entry
Mine is a juggling act.
As I write, I am looking out at thirteen undergraduate students of freshman composition writing feverishly about the greatest day of their lives. This is the topic I prepared for the English 1001 Final Exam Essay, a mandatory group exam that I will not grade because I am a firm believer in writing-as-a-process. So my students will be turning in portfolios, many at the last possible minute of course, containing various assignments that have undergone (hopefully) painstaking revision. I tell them on the handout:
And as they write feverishly, so do I, feeling that first statement about the mess of writing to its fullest extent. I am writing this essay in the midst of writing another academic essay, while giving an exam, reading and grading student portfolios, and yesterday was Mother's day, so I put all of this aside to revel in my most challenging and rewarding role of all as mother of a seven and a half year old daughter, Jordan. And so juggling is the perfect metaphor here: mother, teacher, student, writer. Juggling roles, juggling classes, juggling papers, juggling discourses, and ultimately juggling words. That last one, the writing, is the one closest to juggling knives. A slip up on this act could be cutthroat.
There's a lot at stake herea degree, a career, an entire future (not to mention sanity). Perhaps I've fallen into the trap of taking myself too damn seriously. After all, juggling is essentially the art of circus clowns riding unicycles and carnival walkers on stilts with big painted on smiles (or frowns). And perhaps this metaphor goes even deeper than I care to explore.
The other essay I am writing sounds quite serious. It's called "Totality of Being Revealed in the Novel," and I'm juggling fast and hard a discourse that is awkward and clumsy; like juggling objects of unequal weight, the words fly this way and that, tossed wildly, they fall with great uncertainty. They are basically the words of Georg Lukács, from his theory of the novel. Unfortunately, the ten pages I've written are 90% Lukács and 10% me. The good news is I have a firm grasp on Lukács' historico-philosophical essay. Unfortunately, it doesn't help me much with this essay. The good news is the feminist theory I've been reading will help tremendously in that essay. Unfortunately, the professor is not likely to buy it. You see I've made a bold assertion that Lukács' theory is anti-feminist in its construction.
It's exclusive in many respects, the most obvious being that he uses not one feminine referent. He speaks of "a natural life worthy of man" and "the grace accorded him." He tells me that "all men in such ages are philosophers" and that "such an age encloses men and deeds in contours that are both joyful and severe." Yet the problem is not really in the syntax, and I know this tacitly. How annoying would it be if he were to engage in that superficial syntactical strategy of gender-inclusive referents; the he/she, him/her, man/woman syndrome. The problem goes much deeper than syntax, we know. The problem exists in the entire feminine / masculine dichotomy of representation. So when Lukács mentions in his preface a conversation with Frau Marianne Weberthe only time he mentions a woman in the entire essayof course I read something disturbing into it: "She wanted to challenge my attitude by telling me of individual, concrete acts of heroism. My only reply was: The better the worse!'" (11). How dare a woman challenge him, I imagine him thinking. How dare she try to enlighten him by shedding a more optimistic light on his pessimistic view on the state of the world.
Still, I went along with him without resistance through the ages of man and found something very right in his theory regarding totality of being. I agreed fully with his ideas of modern disillusionment and the incompleteness of soul. His strictly masculine referents didn't bother me at all because I naturally included myself in his discussion of the "individual." Then it came time for me to say something about it all in my voice. I had reiterated Lukács to the point of nausea, and while I knew that the professor would be thrilled at my complete digestion of the material, I thought it best to spit out some thoughts of my own. Here's what I said:
What then is the difference between the masculine and feminine representation of totality? With regards to Lukács, the answer rests with the full exclusion of the feminine in the very definition of totality. As Ross Poole points out in "Modernity, Rationality and the Masculine": "To be a woman is to exist within specific activities to specific others and it involves specific activities with respect to those others" (54). Therefore, a woman within this theoretical framework is naturally excluded from the possibility of totality because she is fundamentally an incomplete individual unless she is "completed" through a relationship with a specific other. She can never achieve wholeness on an individual basis.
The question then is whether Lukács' theory is an exclusively masculine constructed conception of totality of being. I have pointed out an obvious difference, a severe incongruence between the masculine/ feminine representations of totality. However, Jung argued that the soul itself was androgynous. Men possessed what he called an anima; the female counterpart of his soul. Women possessed a male counterpart called the animus. In this Jungian sense, we could very well read Lukács as having only simplified the matter by limiting his references to "man," but ultimately including "woman" in his theory of totality of being. Only this seems too simple and, in fact, does not make for a good discussion.
This conversation could hardly be interpreted as an inclusion of women into his theoretical discourse. Again, I am not concerned with Lukács intentions as with the theory itself as it might apply to a novel written by a woman.
So Lukács did help me with writing this essay after all.
May 15, 2002
I can hardly contain my excitement and feel I must say more about your essay. You say, "The reason I feel embarrassed at my own attempts to speak personally in a professional context is that I have been conditioned to feel that way. That's all there is to it" (25). I put the essay down then and there. It was as if that statement was so definitive, everything I possibly needed to know in order to begin, that I would write, and write, and write, and never be silenced again. But I picked the essay up again because I, too, "am completely hooked" by your voice and your ideas (and perhaps even a little bit hooked by you).
Of course people are scared to talk about themselves. We don't have "the guts to do it" because the act in itself is considered cowardlywe're scared to jump off the cliff into the deep-dark intellectual waters so we buy time chatting with the other scaredy-cats peering over the edge.
You ask, "How can we speak personally to one another and yet not be self-centered?" (31). Speaking personally, I reply, is the best way to cure the self of an over-inflated ego. At the bottom of this personal chit-chat is a pure, untainted desire for knowledge, and an honest confession that we, in fact, don't know everything. Personally speaking, it requires a great deal of courage.
I have included, for your review, the first draft of this
essay written before my acquaintance with your work.
A Risky Beginning
Women are not to write like women.
How unaware I was of the confinements and constraints of traditional conventions in the academic and literary realms when I wrote my first poem. Oblivious to anything like patriarchal discourse or male-dominated canonization, I wrote seemingly with total freedom from any such bondage, expressing openly my thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Little did I know that years later I would find myself locked down by a nightmarish femininity.
My first poem was never published. It was never even typed for that matter. It is laminated and kept safe in a folder. I do not recall actually writing the poem, but it speaks volumes of my highly charged emotional disposition. Call it, if you must, my femininity.
At that time, I had been experimenting with syntax and form, unconcerned with the acceptable conventions or any such expectations regarding the right way to write. The risk-taking paid off and the poem was a success. Mimi and Paw Paw loved it.
It has been one year, six months, two weeks, three days, and eleven hours since I completed my last poem. Since then, I have attempted poems only in precarious and self-conscious modes, jotting down a line or two that I immediately came to detest, scratched out, and abandoned. Until only recently, I attributed this poetic paralysis to a lack of creativity on my part, basically believing that I had lost it. I had received some recognition previously for several of my poems. A few had been published, two had won awards. Last spring, one instructor appreciated a poem so much that she asked my permission to include it in her course packet. How could I have not believed a space had been cleared for me in the local literary landscape?
Then the unspeakable happened. A parking garage went up where my clearing had been. All creativity ceased, or seemed to cease, and the vehicles of thought that once moved freely and briskly along the freeways of language broke down and were abandoned there in my poetic imagination. Whether out of gas or struck with flat tires, I was not sure. All I knew was the poems had stopped rolling and showed no signs of future life. Perhaps, I often thought, I've just run out of significant things to say, my senses and sensibilities dulled by the un-eventfulness of domestic life. I could no longer "write what I knew," as some composition instructors had once preached, because what I knew seemed an unremarkable and unworthy subject for poetry. I was vaguely aware, however, of certain constraints, rules (or laws even) that had taken effect, things such as, you cannot write about love, motherhood, friendship, a broken heart, pets, washing dishes, laundry, playing in the park, shopping, or death. While I could not find these regulations listed in any book on poetics, nonetheless, they came to exist for me. Somehow, somewhere, at some time, I came to understand that such matters were unfit for real poetry.
And it wasn't just my poems that had sputtered to a halt, but all of my writing began to suffer from some unnamable malady. Having once encountered adequate success in my academic writing for literature courses, I floundered through two critical term projects in a row, and was ultimately criticized for a lack of ingenuity and a failure to produce a "publishable" academic article. Matters only worsened when, in a last ditch attempt to revive my writing, I enrolled in a fiction workshop last semester, only to fail utterly at composing one decent short story, and got not one novel idea up off the ground. The jig was up. These were the darkest days yet, and I watched as my writing aspirations smoldered and burnt out, disappearing like a puff of smoke in the winds of March.
Broken and defeated, I considered committing literary suicide, which likely was my aim in enrolling for two theory classes this semester. Little did I know, however, that somewhere in the dense texts of Derrida, Bakhtin, and Lukács, among the muck of genre theory, were vague clues that would eventually become the much needed answers to questions I never even knew to ask. Come to find out, the dragon that holds me hostage in the castle tower is a male-constructed captor, a twisted and demented idea of my own femininity, a falsity, and a hindrance to my success as a writer. Even now, as I write this essay, she breaths down my neck.
In her essay "Discourse and Diversity: Experimental Writing Within the Academy," Lillian Bridwell-Bowles presents various "possibilities for new forms of discourse, new kinds of academic essays." Her socio-political view of language is a pluralistic one, taking into account "a host of issues," including gender. She states: "Our language and our written texts represent our visions of our culture, and we need new processes and forms if we are to express ways of thinking that have been outside the dominant culture," (p. 43). What is the social function of academic writing then? Surely we could not reduce this to a single function. (Go to Writing in the Academic Disciplines, Intro: Academic Writing: Transparent Recording or Visible Rhetoric, p. 10). More later.
What Derrida is Saying
Derrida was one of the first theorists introduced to me in my genre theory course. While I still struggle with the concepts he puts forth in this article, I have managed to grasp the idea that genre is so intimately tied to the modes of discourse that it embodies, it is impossible to discern which came first; the discourse or the genre? My earlier parody of Jacques Derrida brings several important issues to the table. One issue stems from Derrida's theory, in its un-parodied form, where he begins his academic article with the following statements:
With regards to the academic essay, then, it is reasonable to assume that genres are going to get mixed, since a remarkable array of discourses emerge in them, particularly in contemporary literary criticism and theory. In other words, in this essay, for example, the discourses of poetry, composition, metaphor (as a discourse), literature, theory, gender, genre, even the discourse of discourse, will inevitably be engaged. Other examples, more scholarly for sure, demonstrate the same phenomenon (i.e., Kristeva's "Stabat Mater").
My parody of Derrida brings up a second issue relevant to genre theory, which Adrienne Rich addresses primarily in her essay, "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision": What is the relationship between gender and genre? This question takes us back even further to the early twentieth-century woman writer-critic Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.
In "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision," Adrienne Rich admits, "I have hesitated to do what I am going to do now, which is to use myself as an illustration," citing first the difficulty and danger of talking about yourself, as opposed to talking about others; and second, the fact that she felt herself to be of a privileged lot:
I ask myself, "Am I special? Special enough that men should tolerate my talking about myself?" To answer yes would, of course, mean that the autotheorical is an exclusive discourse (special women only need apply here), and that men still decide who "gets to" participate. So why do I not hesitate to do what I am doing nowuse myselfas an illustration? The fact is, Rich hesitated for me, for all of us, long enough to consider the dangers of speaking personally in a professional context and recognize that the myth of the special/token woman is far more destructive. We need to dispel the myth. We need not ever hesitate again.
However, there is another difficulty implied by Rich here regarding the accepted conventions of academic writing. Donald Murray, a well-known member of the composition community, "argues for a distinction between academic voice' and personal voice'." He contests that "academic writing should appeal to reason, maintain a distanced and detached tone, cite outside authority, and be written in response to previous academic writing" (Bridwell-Bowles, 45-46). I argue that while Rich's essay maintains a particularly "personal voice" by way of memoir, it nevertheless meets at least three of Murray's criterion for being considered a piece of academic writing. It appeals to reason; that is, feminist and poetic reason. She cites outside authority, including Bernard Shaw and Henry James. Finally, the piece is written in response to previous feminist theorists, in particular, Virginia Woolf. The distinction between "academic" and "personal" voice masks gender bias and does not, as Jane Tompkins also asserts, hold.
So What if This is a Journal Entry
Here I am again doing things that are particularly "un-feminine": sitting in a coffee shop at a table all alone, smoking in public, and thinking about feminism. I'm reminded of a line from Florence King in her Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady: "No matter which sex I went to bed with, I never smoked on the street" (2). In one respect, I feel I have drifted too far from scholarship in writing this essay, that I've been "self-indulgent, soft-minded, and unprofessional," (Tompkins, 24). And I'm feeling much like Jane in another respect that I no longer want to write about that "subject matter" as it appears in the first draft of my essay. The direction I was going to take seems now like a tedious, unfulfilling path. I was going to talk in more depth about Derrida, about the social function of academic writing as determined by another. Instead I want to take another listen to what Jane is saying.
She's talking about anger, an old anger (her anger) about "the way women are used as extensions of men, mirrors of men, devices for showing men off, devices for helping men get what they want. They are never there in their own right, or rarely" (38). I'm searching myself for this anger now, but none surfaces.
Why am I not angry?
It's because Jane already felt it for me. Because of her, I can simply feel liberated by this new way of thinking, excited at the course my essay has taken. Jane says, "I hate men for the way they treat women, and pretending that women aren't there is one of the ways I hate most" (37). At this moment, and this moment only perhaps, I don't share her sentiment. In reading and re-reading Jane's essay, men (and all that they think, say, and do) have disappeared from the scene. At this moment, my world contains no men. (Even the male acquaintance who so rudely interrupted my writing by sitting down at the table with me to engage in the usual banter is gone.) It's me and my Jane-o, and we are engaged in a conversation far more important than any other. And so I can forgive them, men, because deep down I know their oppressiveness originates from their own insecurities. They are afraid, too. And maybe they're even angry. It doesn't matter, though, because I am writing regardless of them all.
The cool evening breeze makes me shiver slightly. In
the air is an indescribable excitement that gives me chills inside,
One last thing about theory. Had it not been for theory, with all its patriarchal gesturing and exclusiveness, however oppressive its frameworks prove to be, I might never have had the good fortune of meeting up with you. If women are urged to "get theory" simply for admittance to the "big leagues," and in turn, they discover for themselves some "unimpeachable" knowledge, self-knowledge, it will be well worth the price they'll have to pay. My advice to women new to theory is this: Wear the straightjacket awhile. Let yourself be confined and constrained by it, so that when you do finally take it off, it will feel unbelievably good.
I continue to write the personal, the emotional, the erotic, continue to use words like "love" and "desire," continue to tell you things like how comfortable I am in my boxer shorts, how sweet the late winter air smells coming through the window, how afraid I am sometimes, how angry, how lonely, and how turned on I am by feminist theory and women's writing.
Now I will, can, write a poem.
Jennifer J. Nuernberg
Rich, Adrienne. "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision." Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations. New York: Norton, 2001.
Tompkins, Jane. "Me and My Shadow." The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism. Eds. Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, & Frances Murphy Zauhar. London: Duke UP, 1993.