July 21, 2010
Having come across this article from Helene Cixous, I am reminded and ashamed by how I have perceived women at times. I can say I have not looked at women with malicious intent or have had hateful feelings but I have neglected how they perceive me. I think as a man, and more generally anyone’s perspective, we can all, at times, neglect how we come across others.
For instance, there is this older gentleman who orders coffee in the mornings and is always complimenting and flattering the young women who serve him. There is nothing creepy in his tone or insidious in his intentions, he simply sees beautiful women and wants to flatter them, but his comments always relate to questions as to why they are single or how they must drive other men lustful.
However, as Helene Cixous points out in Laugh of the Medusa, conventional men (Cixous wrote her essay in 1975 so conventional men refer to men of 1975 and in France where she lived at the time, but which she universalizes) tend to neglect how what they say to women come off. In other words, the things we say represent an ideology, and Cixous stresses the point that men constantly present an ideology to women where they are made to feel guilty over all their decisions.
I know I have lost you, but allow me to elaborate. Lets say a man sees a woman and he is attracted to her. He goes up and talks to her with the intention of asking her on a date or getting closer to her. He flatters her unabashedly and gives all the signs that he likes her. Then she refuses. Afterwards this woman feels guilty. This man was nice and liked her but she did not feel an attraction towards him. But should that be a reason to feel guilty? And yet if she did not feel guilty, even a little, then would not a majority of people question her or see her as brutal or harsh. That is one example.
Helene Cixous explains that women are repressed in all areas and occupy “the place reserved for the guilty”:
Guilty of everything, guilty at every turn: for having desires, for not having any, for being frigid, for being “too hot”; for not being both at once; for nursing and for not nursing…
In the example, let’s say the man makes the decision to never see the woman again. He has made his attempt and failed. He doesn’t want to see her and so banishes himself from her and her from his mind. Partly, this sheds light to what Cixous describes as Medusa. This situation in which the man finds himself is one where he sees himself retreating and cautious. The woman who he once saw as beautiful, like how Medusa was said to be once very beautiful herself, is transformed into a hideous beast that the mere sight can unman a man and freeze his moves. For what can a man do after he is rejected? he has no noble moves but to leave the situation at an end.
Cixous writes that men, of the parental-conjugal phallocentric order, are “surprised and horrified by the fantastic tumult of her drives (for she was made to believe that a well-adjusted normal woman has a…divine composure), hasn’t accused herself of being a monster?”
Cixous describes the oppression thus: “We’ve been turned away from our bodies, shamefully taught to ignore them, to strike them with that stupid sexual modesty; we’ve been made victims of the old fool’s game: each one will love the other sex. I’ll give you your body and you’ll give me mine.” So thus I think some girls who get flattered too much are put in a difficult situation at times by the imperative that all these flattering calls ask on what they must do with their own bodies. I am not saying women do not deserve compliments or flattery, but that this imperative to do something because of the act be removed or surpassed. Perhaps then it would be comfortable and equable to call her beautiful without having her feel that there is another intention by it or to explain that a compliment is merely a compliment for the sake of a compliment and that this is its pure intention.
Cixous calls women to let everyone know how they feel. To write. To write to women for women by women about women through women. To have a voice as equal as men do, unless they continue to be oppressed by the words of them. She begins early in her essay that “I write this as a woman, toward women. When I say “woman,” I’m speaking of woman in her inevitable struggle against conventional man; and of a universal woman subject who must bring women to their senses and to their meaning in history.”
She ends her essay by proclaiming “when I write, it’s everything that we don’t know we can be that is written out of me, without exclusions, without stipulation, and everything we will be calls us to the unflagging, intoxicating, unappeasable search for love. In one another we will never be lacking.”
She writes poetically, and claims the writing that best represents this voice comes from poetry because it takes so much unconscious energy to create.
Sometimes I don’t know what women are thinking when I come up to talk to them. I realize that simply seeing a woman as beautiful should not entitle me to the right to assume that I know what she wants. I supposed this common instance in society can be expanded to everyone. It seems the major background behind this ideology is assumption.
I am going to preach my opinion now so excuse me, but I think we would be better off reacting honestly to any situation and how we feel instead of coming into something with prepared assumptions on who someone is. If I find someone beautiful, then that should be enough in-it-self. If I have any further intentions then I should make them known. And if they are passed upon, then I should not let myself or whomever else feel any guilt or misgivings about it and, as Cixous says, I can continue “to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.”
[I apologize if I have offended anyone by my comments. I am still understanding much about all these ideas and I feel that because I am a man, I should be respectful not to speak with an authority on women, especially as a subject. I know coming from a man’s point-of-view I can never understand the perspectives and completely different gender experience they encounter in life. Helene Cixous makes this separation between the perspectives of the genders most clear and reveals a wall that isolates us from each other. She does advocate that we all write about our experiences and voice them to everyone in order for everyone to have a better understanding of each other. I really like the idea that “in one another we will never be lacking.]
Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Continuum” is an essay that explores two central and interwoven topics; compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence. Her definition of “lesbian existence” covers a broad spectrum of women experience. It is described as a women’s choice of women as passionate comrades, life partners, co-workers, lovers, and community. It is a reality, not an imagined life-style; it’s a source of knowledge, energy and power available to women. It is woman-identified experience, the forms of primary intensity between and among women, and it is connected to compulsory heterosexuality because it is a bond against male tyranny. But it is also more than that; lesbian existence seeks to break taboos and the rejection of a compulsory way of life. One of Rich’s recurring themes is that lesbian existence has always existed alongside heterosexuality but has been denied a voice, silenced, oppressed, so that lesbians feel alone in their choices, as if they are the first to do it. Rich argues that this lesbian bond re-creates a mother-daughter bond. From a feminist-psychological perspective, the search for love and tenderness in both sexes seems originally to lead toward women, from this mother-daughter relationship, Rich asks the question: why in fact do women redirect energy and this search toward men?
Her answer becomes an exploration into “compulsory heterosexuality.” It is described as a political institution. In her essay, the way heterosexuality has been constructed in many societies is reflective of male dominance. Heterosexuality has been naturalized and put in the “unmarked” category of sexual preference for most women. Throughout her essay, Rich argues that heterosexuality is not questioned, even among many feminist circles. What Rich is trying to explain is that heterosexuality is not entirely innate. It powerfully affects mothering, sex roles, relationships, and societal prescriptions for women. Women are seen to preserve the sacredness of the home. Rich argues that one of the purposes of forced or institutionalized heterosexuality on women is because heterosexuality is seen as an economic imperative to capitalistic systems. In order for the system to survive, it must continue to produce and reproduce, it therefore instills on the mentality of women that motherhood and reproduction is essential to their existence, that men are needed for this, it places taboos on both lesbianism and homosexuality, and tries to instill economic dependency on men.
That is one cause creating compulsory heterosexuality, the institution demands women’s total emotional and erotic loyalty and subservience to men. It takes women’s emotional and erotic energies away from their selves and other women. Rich lists many examples of male oppression on women. Some examples include the denial of women’s own sexuality, the control and exploitation of women labor to control their produce, the physical and mental confinement of their movement, leaving women in a state of arrested development, and to use them as objects in male transactions. The media plays an important socialization on women to conform to heterosexuality. Many of the media forms of compulsion include an erasure of lesbian existence (except as erotic and perverse) in art, literature, and film; and the idealization of heterosexual romance and marriage. Compulsory heterosexuality maintains a false-consciousness of a mother-son relationship between women and men, including a demand that women be maternal solace, non-judgmentally nurturing and compassionate. Most importantly, it is the enforcement of heterosexuality upon women as a means of assuring male right of physical, economic, and emotional access.
Rich’s essay relates a lot to the subject of patriarchy, sexual harassment, traditional views on marriage, and categories of “unmarkedness” and “markedness.” Rich resists patriarchy, male tyranny, and questions many assumptions on how natural they really are. One example from daily life where heterosexuality is assumed to be the norm is procreation and mothering as essential to women’s lives and that the normal way is with male companionship. It does not appear imperative that all women should procreate and then be chiefly in charge of raising children, especially since many other options exist, like lesbian partnerships raising children, adoption, more responsibility on men to raise children, or not having children at all. Procreation and motherhood is not essential for women to live a satisfying life, the ticking clock inside women is a myth, a compulsory heterosexual myth. However, religion, the media, and peer influence reinforce the naturalness of this, and consequently, heterosexuality. One example Rich gives, is the sexual objectification of women. Rich explains how both sexes are conditioned to see women as sexual objects, vulnerable and desirable, this view can result in the mentality of single women to see their social position as sexual prey and casual violations, and have a view of marriage as a way of escaping that position, marriage in this case for these women is seen a compulsory necessity of survival, furthermore, the institution of marriage is seen as a prospective that relies always on the dependency of men. It is these forces of compulsory heterosexuality that convince women that marriage and sexual orientation toward men are inevitable.
March 1, 2010
“Anomalousness” is about the minority of women literature in canons. Joanna Russ, it’s author, investigates that the percentage of women in anthologies and academic lists is marginal, between five and eight percent. Her essay inspired me to do some of my own research on the representation of women writers in english studies. I was sad to find that the results were less than passing.
She provides one example from another study done on courses in a college’s English department in which only 17 women out of 313 writers were listed in courses past freshmen year.
But what really bothers Russ more that the imbalance, “is the constancy of the imbalance despite the changes in personnel.” Her investigation spans lists edited from 1861 to 1961 and from different anthologies and colleges. From all these sources she finds that the imbalance of women writers to men writers does not improve, the changes she does notice involve a replacement of one set of women writers with another and then a return or a mix-up in the sets. What remains constant is that women always remain in the margins of literature.
James Joyce points this out in Ulysses during the chapter when the men go to the hospital to witness the birth of a child. The chapter is written in a progressive style in which the prose imitates the styles of english authors, beginning with the earliest writers of english literature and progressing in style as the chapter progresses. The style includes the styles of male writers exclusively, and left in the margins of the chapter are women writers, just as the chapter focuses on the men during the childbirth and ignores the mother and the nurses who actually deliver the child.
Russ points out that the consequences of this causes the anomalousness of women writers. She quotes from Van Gerven’s “Lost Literary Traditions”:
“When Dickinson, or any women poet for that matter, is isolated from all writing in her own and succeeding generations, she appears bizarre, extraneous…. Since women writers are thus isolated, they often do not fit into the literary historian’s “coherent view of the total literary culture.”… As each succeeding generation of women… is excluded from the literary record, the connections between women… writers become more and more obscure, which in turn simply justifies the exclusion of more and more women on the grounds that they are anomalous—they just don’t fit in.”
“Anomalousness” was published in 1983. Now, 26 years later, as I first read this essay, I wonder if the marginality still stood between five to eight percent.
I first decided to go to my local library and check their core literature recommendations for students in grades seven through 12. At first the results were positive:
7th grade: five out of ten writers were women.
8th grade: eight out of 17 writers.
But as the grades started going higher, the number of women writers to men writers went down:
9th grade: six out of 17.
10th grade: five out of 23.
11th grade: four out of 20.
12th grade: two out of 18
These statistics did seem to agree with Russ’ arguments. But I still wondered if at the college level things would be different. So I asked two friends who were both English majors. One friend, a senior at UC Irvine, told me that in her Victorian literature class, out of the eight assigned books to read, only two were from woman authors. Another friend, a junior at CSUDH, told me that in her World literature class two out of the six assigned readings were from woman authors. And in Her Critical Readings in Literature class, out of the 33 assigned readings only seven were woman writers.
So 26 years later, it does appear that women writers are still included in the margins of literary history. But this study is small and only from my personal experience. Perhaps a larger study may reveal a more balanced collection.
Lastly, I wanted to return to the question of the anomalousness of women writers that Russ was most concerned about. To find an answer to that question I turned to Virginia Woolf and her essay “A Room of One’s Own.” In Woolf’s quest to find a woman writer as great as Shakespeare in his era she comes to a conclusion about women in literary history early in her research:
“It would be ambitious beyond my daring, I thought, looking about the shelves for books that were not there, to suggest to the students of those famous colleges that they should re-write history… but why should they not add a supplement to history? For one often catches a glimpse of them [women] in the lives of the great, whisking away into the background, concealing… a wink, a laugh, perhaps a tear… But what I find deplorable, I continued, looking about the bookshelves again, is that nothing is known about women before the eighteenth century.”
“A Mindless Man-Driven Theory machine: Intellectuality, Sexuality, and the Institution of Criticism.”
January 25, 2010
James J. Sosnoski tries to show in his essay that the institution of criticism has developed into a competition where winners are chosen by the power their arguments have to disprove previous arguments or the arguments of their opponents.
His essay focuses on the structures of scholarly argumentation, whereby he comes to the conclusions that in order for a scholar to increase his validity he has to first draw upon previous sources for his argument and then use his very argument to reveal new insight by finding error from the sources he used. If this argument sounds confusing, it isn’t. It’s merely Sosnoski’s attempt at understanding the abstract nature of argumentation.
And in his attempts he finds “the tie between the institutional construction of intellectuality and the social construction of sexuality.” He sees that competition and the rules of finding error in another’s argument that define the outcome of the scholar’s own legitimacy as socially constituted through the general bias of male social behavior: Competition, power, aggression.
But I should pause here. My own attempt in writing about “A Mindless Man-Driven Theory” is not to summarize Sosnoski’s whole essay but to think about one of the ideas he brings up; the structure of arguing.
Sosnoski explains how certain arguments depend on finding errors in the arguments of others. Then the errors of these person’s arguments become interrupted as their selves being false, mistaken, and wrong because their arguments are false, mistaken, and wrong. So the error in someone’s argument becomes an error in someone’s character. He is not speaking about all arguments in general but mainly of those in the institution of criticism. And he calls the conflation of error—false, mistaken, wrong—”Falsification.”
He states that “error can be heuristic, but, falsicity makes error a punishable form of wrong-doing.” So when one critic argues upon the error of another critic (regardless of whether the critic’s argument for error is valid or not) an implication is assumed that the critic in error is guilty of not simply his argument in question, but also on the wrongness and falsehood of his reputation as a valid source and trustworthy critic. Since Sosnoski says, as a scholarly critic, it is his profession to construct arguments that must be valid, then when an error is brought up, he can be seen as doing wrong because he has not been honest in his profession.
Also, since he is assumed to be mistaken, his own intellectuality is put in question as to how intelligent he is.
Therefore to err in an argument soon carries deep pressure. not only does one take the risk of being wrong in one point, but wrong over-all, ignorant, and false because his argument is false.
What can the wronged critic do. Sosnoski says that the critic has to refute his opponent by falsifying his opponent’s argument. “Falsification is a regulating mechanism [in the competition within arguments] in the sense that it is like tagging the person who is ‘it.’” Furthermore, “Falsification, though construed as a regulator, functions only as a measurement of the logicality and frequency of successful counter-claims; hence, it has the effect of multiplying falsifications.”
In this way, arguments become escalating quarrels that can continue indefinitely, and the purpose among scholars that arguments are meant to provide new insights becomes obscured. The focus gets shifted from the argument’s first purpose.
Sosnoski does offer alternatives to his view of masculine competition. He explains that instead, intellectual criticism can be collaborative,compassionate, in concurrence, and shaped by the similarities found within differing viewpoints. “Differences are crucial, reading is not an appropriation by an individual; it is a political concurrence of a group.”
My interest in Sosnoski’s idea came from a curiosity in understanding the nature of arguing. I think Sosnoski reveals a possible direction that argumentation can take, a direction that when consciously followed, can be redirected to the main purpose of the argument: the insight it states.