Narrative Perversion: Beverly Dahlen’s A Reading
I. Dahlen, Freud, and Kristeva
A Reading 1-7, epigraph: “Wittgenstein asked where, when, and by what rationally established criterion the process of free yet potentially linked and significant association in psychoanalysis could be said to have a stop. An exercise in ‘total reading’ is also potentially unending.” –George Steiner, After Babel.
Beginning, middle, end. Narrative desire, a desire for arc, wish fulfillment. A cultural assumption of cohesion. A limited reading. The limits of narrative. Total reading, reading through and beyond.
Beverly Dahlen’s unending serial poetic work, A Reading, critiques narrative desire and identity construction, enacts a non/narrative theory-in-practice, and negotiates possibilities for identification for subjects “of difference” who don’t fit into social norms.
(non/narrative doesn’t do away with narrative altogether, rather, in Dahlen’s work we see narrative strategies pushed to, and beyond, perceived limits; the narrative text is expanded to formally enact possibilities for conceptualizing identity in the world.)
“how forever and away I would wonder if this came from anywhere, or if floating unconnected. as clouds seem to. mysterious powers now visible. rest in that, as water now solid, air more so, she flies. impinging on another time” (A Reading 1-7, 15).
Mysterious powers indeed.
(Dahlen began writing A Reading in the 1970s, publishing the first book, A Reading 1-7, in 1985. The most recent addition, A Reading 18-20, was published in 2006. The series, so far, published in four books, 20 sections in total, is hybrid in form and through intertextual play explores a variety of cultural concerns that extend out from her own personal politics. Upon encountering A Reading 1-7 one notices many formal strategies that frame just some of its politics: the space of the journal (as genre of writing) is reworked, turned into a hybrid form, and made public; only occasionally are the “read” texts cited or referred to specifically; sometimes lines are quoted but no original source is given; sections often begin and end in ways that avoid clear notation of beginning or ending (they begin in the middle of something and then simply end at generally non-specific points)—the work opens, for example, with the line: “before that and before that” (15); and the whole of the work avoids heading toward any sort of closure. The process of recording reading notes creates its own genre, in a way, and in a separate essay, Dahlen writes that the work only “turns out to be something like a journal . . . that it was not preconceived in terms of these or any other forms originally” (“Forbidden”).)
Dahlen begins in Freud.
(Why is Freud important in the 70s when Dahlen is writing? Why is Freud important now?) Psychoanalytic feminism:
While sex and gender are sometimes construed in feminist theory in terms of the contrast between biology and culture, or nature and nurture, Freud’s theory … challenges these dualisms, developing an account of the sexual drive that traverses the mental and the physical, and undergoes idiosyncratic vicissitudes rather than assuming a uniform anatomical or social shape. Whatever the hazards of Freud’s writings on women, then, his work explores in new ways the meaning and possibilities of sexed identity … psychoanalytic feminism interrupts many assumptions about what feminism is and the conceptual and material objects it theorizes … In unsettling our understanding of this concept, psychoanalysis also poses questions to feminism about the value of difference and the quest for equality, and the unresolved tensions between these divergent pursuits. (Zakin)
To further this thought, let’s turn to French feminism and psychoanalysis in the 1970s, namely, Julia Kristeva. (She is not the only French feminist thinking about Freud and psychoanalysis in the 70s but for our purposes of reflecting on Dahlen’s work, Kristeva is key.) Dahlen evokes Kristeva’s subject-in-process, altering narrative and other textual elements throughout A Reading to open textual and cultural space for marginalized, or negated, discourses and subjects.
Kelly Oliver on Kristeva: “In traditional Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis it is the paternal function that initiates the negation and identification that finally propels the infant into both language and subjectivity” (3). Concerned with otherness and alterity, as represented by the oppressed maternal function, Kristeva uses the (marginalized) discourses of poetry, maternity, and psychoanalysis (Kristeva sees the maternal as “the other” in the (Freudian) Oedipal, and (Lacanian) phallic symbolic systems):
for a reconceived ethics that operates according to a love of difference rather than the regulation and exclusion of difference [and] provides the possibility of an ethics of difference, a feminist ethics . . . Kristeva’s continual concern with negotiating between identity and negation in order to avoid both the totalitarianism of absolute identity and the delirium of complete negation is central to feminism . . . Kristeva proposes a way to conceive of a productive but always only provisional identity, an identity whose constant companions are alterity, negation, and difference. (Oliver, Reading 13-14)
Oliver also calls Kristeva’s subject-in-process an “identity-in-process,” in which the semiotic (that is, pre-Oedipal, pre-Lacanian-mirror, language vs. “meaning”) becomes visible within the symbolic disrupting normative discourse and opening space for other(ness) discourses. According to Kristeva, the symbolic organizes and unifies (normalizes) otherwise incoherent semiotic elements. Yet the semiotic continually threatens to disrupt symbolic unity.
“continued. this was an echo. the double. claustrophobia. an illness in which one suffocates, closing in, there seem to be. overwhelmingly. always the word ready at the tip. our lack of conviction. the exaggeration. the more we don’t the more we” (A Reading 1-7 16).
(How breaking social norms and conventions might contribute to long-term changes in restrictive cultural narratives for women, artists, lesbians, queer people, and those whose experiences are antithetical to the limitations of social norms. how language)
Theresa de Lauretis (reading Freud) offers a theory of perverse desire in which perversion as negative is made positive, that is, perversion manifesting in affirmative models for personal and social identification. And “difference” (as opposed to coherent and unified) is considered important to the “process” of “provisional identity.” Dahlen’s “perverse” non-normative (non/narrative and other) practices can be read as productive potential vs. normative limitations and what becomes repressed. As Elizabeth Grosz explains:
The symbolic organizes the libidinal drives according to a phallic sexual economy, a normative and generative linguistic structure . . . and a subjective and social identity. These various identities—sexual, linguistic, subjective—are provisional and threaten to dissolve when . . . the semiotic transgresses its boundaries. These are moments of breakdown of identity (psychosis), meaning and coherence (poetry) and sexual identity (perversion, fetish) . . . Each demonstrates the usually repressed semiotic contributions to the symbolic by providing the semiotic with expression. (48)
If semiotic disruption manifests in psychosis, poetry, or perversion, then it also marks a moment of potential change. When meaning and coherence are transgressed (in poetry and avant-garde art) political commentary, philosophical insights, abstract emotion, and difference are given space to emerge and resonate.
Grosz: “The dominance of the symbolic is never guaranteed or secure,” but that stability is subject to “revolutionary rupture” (Sexual 49).
The point of rupture is the moment of revolutionary potential. This rupture occurs textually, after Kristeva, in disrupting linguistic and narrative structure, and subjectively, disrupting the structure of unified identity in favor of difference. Dahlen advocates for subjects who identify in less coherent and unified ways, queering the (otherwise normative) text and (heteronormative) identity categories toward models that serve to enact more complex, spatial processes of identity.
“we know this is a piece of writing. we condense the time. it really took much longer. there is no real time in writing. no ‘total reading.’ language is an after thought” (A Reading 1-7 21).
(Language is an afterthought in this limited seeing of the writing, when in fact language, in its expansiveness, offers a complexity that evokes the real time at the core of the “perversion” of narrative and identity.)
Dahlen enacts Freudian analysis to critique narrative as transparent and provisional, and to show how desire (for “meaning”; for narrative closure) can never be fully realized.
(Although Freud did not believe one could do analysis on oneself, Dahlen interprets analysis as a strategy for material textual practice as well as seeking knowledge through writing; they are using analysis as a model and practice, and constructing subjectivity through their writing processes.)
“the crooked paths, or the woods without trails, she wrote how she followed her grandfather in the pathless words, hunting, how a log became a crocodile, snakes in the water, how things became animals, enemies, enmity forever, my heel shall crush thee” (A Reading 1-7 32).
II. The Wolf Man
Freud utilizes narrative strategies both in analysis and in the narrativization of analysis.
During analysis, hidden or repressed material is brought from the unconscious into consciousness, and through the process of transference, both analyst and patient use the recovered material (memories, dreams) to “narrate” their situation.
In writing case histories, Freud relies on literature, philosophy, material artifacts, figurative language, and narrative in the interpretation of recovered material. The case histories call attention to themselves as seemingly transparent reports of analysis as they negotiate the original story and narration of that story.
Freud “must manage to tell, both ‘at once’ and ‘in order,’ the story of a person, the story of an illness, the story of an investigation, the story of an explanation; and ‘meaning’ must ultimately lie in the effective interrelationship of all of these” (Brooks 273).
Freud recognizes the “provisional status” of narrative and its “drive toward the end and a resistance to ending,” especially in relation to psychoanalysis, which is:
inherently interminable, since the dynamics of resistance and the transference can always generate new beginnings in relation to any conceivable end . . . . The closure demanded by narrative understanding—the closure without which it can have no coherent plot—is always provisional, as if a necessary fiction. (Brooks 281)
Turn to the Wolf Man story, for example. Instead of simply relying on the original, cohesive, narrative account, Freud destabilizes the dominance of narrative meaning by opening the possibility for other meanings, making closure difficult.
Freud challenges the linearity of “narrative plot,” giving accounts of analysis that are “inherently interminable.”
(Brooks uses Freud’s theory of “analysis interminable” in part from Freud’s essay “Analysis Terminable and Interminable” in which Freud discusses the various possibilities for the termination of analysis depending on factors including the reasons for analysis in the first place (trauma or constitution) as well as the eventual subsiding of recurring symptoms and consciousness of repressed material. Although analysis may end for various reasons, it may not always be “complete” or include satisfactory resolution.)
Brooks: “like the modernist novel, the case history of the Wolf Man shows up the limits of storytelling while nonetheless insisting that the story must get told. The plots of narrative have become extraordinarily complex, self-subversive, apparently implausible” (285).
Both the desire to tell, and the desire to read the incoherent in coherent narrative form (Brooks) drives the impulse to narrate. “It is of overwhelming importance to us that life still be narratable” (Brooks) “which may mean finding those provisional, tenuous plots that appear to capture the force of desire that cannot speak its name but compels us in a movement—recursive, complex, unclosed—toward meaning” (Brooks 285).
We want to believe that if it can be narrated, it can be understood.
We want to know that narration equals meaning.
Freud understood the difficulty (impossibility?) of narrative closure.
Freud recognized possibilities for the interminable openness of analytical or narrative “meaning.”
“human language is not a code, it is something else in which we speak the third world, a world unconquered. where id was there I shall be, shall come to be, going there, as if it were another country … I desired to desire thee. falling in love again. her musky voice” (A Reading 1-7 32).
Desire works as momentum, as part of the “dynamic operation” of narrative, “connecting beginning and end across the middle and making of that middle—what we read through—a field of force,” even if it can never be fully realized (Brooks 47).
Realization of desire may (only) result in destruction and death. Desire necessitates lack. Fulfillment results in “the drive toward extinction” (Freud, qtd. in Brooks 50).
If “the realization of the desire for narrative encounters the limits of narrative” (Brooks), Dahlen seems already aware of those limits and the idea, “that one can tell a life only in terms of its limits or margins” (52).
Desire is a subject of exploration and motivating textual impulse. Through Freud and Lacan, Brooks shows that desire occurs in the “difference” between what is “demanded” and what is “achieved,” or between “demand” and “need.”
(He also cites Laplanche and Pontalis, who write “Desire is born of the gap between need and demand” (qtd. in Brooks 55).)
Brooks: “desire is inherently unsatisfied and unsatisfiable” (55).
Narrative, like analysis, moves forward with the hope of resolution, or of “meaning,”
which will always fall short, which is always lacking (Brooks 56).
Dahlen and Freud recognize this “perpetual slippage” (in analysis) (in writing) which embodies the gaps inherent in the desire to progress, find meaning, and conclude.
In the telling of a life story, “the claim that intelligibility, meaning, understanding depend on a fully predicated narrative sentence, on a narrative totality, never is and never can be realized” (Brooks 60).
Language as medium, narrative incoherence and resistance to closure as practice, opening spaces between the drive for pleasure and the drive toward death, these other ways of narrating through language not limited by boundaries and expectations, allow for that slippage, and the possibility of a non-illusive reality.
“this is the story of my life. I cast her in the third person or in the second person at will. who is this I? who asks the question already knows the answer. it is nothing, illusion, something made up out of loss, desire. you suffer her fate. she, and not her. the child is a gift and suffers the fatality of the given” (A Reading 1-7 34).
Hayden White: the use of narrative in the representation of history puts “History” (as it is narrated) in danger of fictionalization, and the danger of fictionalizing history, is the consequent moralizing that happens by way of narrativization.
White wants to challenge the constructed nature of narrative in the field of historiography (via comparing different forms of historical documentation (such as annals and chronicles)) in which real events are put into the form of a (fictional) story; we question narrative desire in light of the fact that real events are not formally coherent – to begin with – but after being constructed as narratives come to seem as if they happened, originally, in story form. And then the need for narrative is internalized as a naturally occurring phenomenon instead of as socially and linguistically constructed.
Annals and chronicles offer a contrast to narrative representations of historical events because of their fragmentation and lack of narrative closure.
White: these forms are “not as the imperfect histories they are conventionally conceived to be” but examples of the “possible conceptions of historical reality” outside of narrative as the dominant convention, or as “alternatives to, rather than failed anticipations of, the fully realized historical discourse that the modern history form is supposed to embody” (6).
“these are tortuous elements, writing as an aid to memory, total recall. even she, however, had moments of amnesia. and the mirror writing which she performed so well, which became a little trick of here, the double, the split” (A Reading 1-7 35).
The dominance of narrative form is linked to a cultural value placed on narrative cohesion, a social and legal system in which the norm of narrative structure erases the gaps and fragments, and values continuity over discontinuity, cohesion over the disparate parts (White).
Narrative as part of the social system, is also “the source of any morality that we can imagine” (White 14) in which, “insofar as historical stories can be completed, can be given narrative closure, can be shown to have had a plot all along, they give to reality the odor of the ideal” (21).
On the relation between the value of narrative and the larger social/cultural system, and the gap between real events and their narrative representation:
Does the world really present itself to perception in the form of well-made stories, with central subjects, proper beginnings, middles, and ends, and a coherence that permits us to see ‘the end’ in every beginning? Or does it present itself more in the forms that the annals and chronicle suggest, either as mere sequence without beginning or end or as sequences of beginnings that only terminate and never conclude? . . . Or is the fiction of such a world, capable of speaking itself and of displaying itself as a form of a story, necessary for the establishment of that moral authority without which the notion of a specifically social reality would be unthinkable? (White 24-25)
Narrative form serves as a re-inscription of moral (social) ideology—and normative practice—which we also see through the oedipal figuration and subjects who function pathologically in relation to “normative” cultural modes.
Non-narrative pathologies (in Freudian terms) (repeating traumatic symptoms, disconnection from original events and conscious understanding or articulation of those events) are dealt with by way of talk therapy, transference, and articulation of the prior events. First the patient discovers—brings material up from the unconscious—and articulates, and then the material is structured, or narrated, with plot developments, and closure/conclusions. The process moves from pathology, to recovery, to “normal” social participation; though Freud also allows for slippage in narration and meaning. Unconscious material, (trauma, memory) is brought into consciousness (writing; non/narrative).
“she wrote that nobody really knew what this thing was but the person or god who made it. she had the idea that it might have been god-made. she noticed that it was a sacred vessel. it was an opening. it marked itself as an opening. for that reason. because it could contain something it could hold it” (A Reading 1-7 41).
III. DuPlessis and Writing By Women
Dahlen / A Reading lingers in the space of difference,
maintains a sense of the interminable,
calls attention to the limits
(limiting nature of) narrative.
In the space between where material is repressed in the unconscious, and when it is constructed into normative narrative structure, we recognize the function of narrative structure in relation to the regulation of social norms and representation.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis: “to change story signals a dissent from social norms as well as narrative forms” (20). The shift in narrative and closure in novels, by women from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, shows how the use and critique of narrative form, as a political and feminist project, “makes the ‘meaning production process’ itself ‘the site of struggle’” (Kuhn qtd. in Duplessis, Writing Beyond 34).
DuPlessis: “Twentieth-century women writers . . . [invent] narrative strategies, especially involving sequence, character, and relationship, that neutralize, minimize, or transcend any oversimplified oedipal drama” (37).
Narrative, as an ideological tool of culture, participates in the social construction of gender roles and assumptions. As women gained greater political power and voice in the twentieth century, in comparison to the nineteenth century, their uses of narrative became more political, pushing beyond previously proscribed narrative endings for female characters, namely: marriage or death.
The “rewriting of gender in dominant fiction”; a “social and sexual . . . poetics of critique” challenges “the gendering and the hegemonic process[es] [which] create mutual reinforcement for the double consciousness of women writers” (43).
(To learn more about the subversion of narrative by women fiction writers, through which, “the woman in the text is also an effect of the textual practice of breaking patriarchal fictional forms; the radical forms—nonlinear, nonhierarchical, and decentering—are, in themselves, a way of writing the feminine” (Friedman and Fuchs 3) see Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction; although discussion might go beyond general textual subversion and gendered writing, Breaking remains important in the discussion of twentieth-century women’s non/narrative experimentation.)
a feminine ending. clarity. the moon on stark hills.
the one damn thing. the one damn thing I meant to do.
negative. throw down the cards. negative. a negative throw. what you tell anyone, skimming the surface. what, getting down to it, you really would say, that he was a home boy, one counted on that, homing instincts. the domestic male … would be a house dove roosting in the trees and eating the mast were he not wild. (A Reading 1-7 61)
Dahlen writes A Reading in the form of a journal or reading notebook. In her critique of Freudian and narrative impulses, she reworks the (feminine) genre of journal “life” writing: opening space for gaps, disconnections, leaps, parataxis. There is no linear beginning, middle, end, no conflict nor resolution.
Like the history annals (White) before the narrator imposes a structure that interprets and fashions material into History—written history before narrativization—Dahlen’s “journal” leaves space for reader engagement. The Reading draws attention to “the cultural function of narrativizing discourse,” (White) and the discomfort of dealing with a text that refuses to do so (non/narrative is discomforting). The “fantasy” of formal coherence is stripped away, highlighting the unconscious material, the material without a constructed narrative plot.
Dahlen pulls material from the metaphorical unconscious. The continuous play between the semiotic and symbolic challenges the social/cultural mandate to narrate, and offers alternatives to narrative norms. This is political work: it rewrites narrative conventions for women as textual and cultural subjects, and offers alternative models for gendered identification and social participation.
IV. Relational Poetics
To begin again, A Reading takes us back to the late 1970s, high time of feminist political activity, popularization of French feminist language theorists like Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, and work of psychoanalytic feminist theorists in response to Freud and Jacques Lacan. Dahlen negotiates Freud on her own terms. A Reading is dialogic, exploratory, interrogative; it probes in order to think through “knowing,” to “evade the censor . . . to say it all, to try to say everything” (“Forbidden”).
There is what I might call an interrogative style that seems to turn up frequently in the writing of feminist women. It’s a style I’m ambivalent about—it annoys me—and yet I find it to a remarkable extent, as here, in my own work . . . . What I am calling the interrogative style of women questions because there are no answers. They are real questions. They are questions about the ground of authority, radical ontological questions, questions about the practice of writing from a center of experience that has been defined by others as non-existent, an absence. These questions throw me into that void, the gulf opens. (Dahlen “Forbidden”)
A Reading enacts the “practice of writing” coming out of “othered” experience. Questioning begins the process, opens the void. Working through possibilities for meaning and knowing (an ontological endeavor) cannot be captured in linear narrative structure. Dahlen creates, opens a text that “knows” through interrogation. After Kristeva, she incorporates material content plus formal strategies to enact processes of coming to know, or coming into being. A Reading becomes a model for practices that open space for subjects who don’t identify within symbolic “norms,” who exist through non/narrative means that move beyond the limits of narrative convention.
This is a kind of “Relational Investigative Poetics,” (The term “Relational Investigative Poetics” is Kristin Prevallet’s; the reading of A Reading in these terms is my idea. I hope you will come to see the connection here), or writing that negotiates history and culture, and includes intertextual dialogue within a poetics. Prevallet:
Instead of buying gas masks and digging underground shelters . . . I turn my rage and confusion towards poetry, the unacknowledged legislation of worlds unacknowledged, to reveal both systems of knowing (content) and structures of ideology (form). Poetry, the work of radical linguistic, contextual, and metrical articulation, is a way to structure my sometimes perpendicular thought processes, transforming confusion and anger into form and meaning. (2)
Prevallet uses Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse,” Open Field Poetics, and other long poems by women (Susan Howe, Anne Waldman, and Muriel Rukeyser) as examples of poetic projects that open to the messiness of history; they open to the process of examining human experience within the space of the poem.
A Relational Poetics considers “texts as being themselves in a constant state of motion, dispersion, and permeability that is inseparable not only from the shifting social and political context, but from the cycles of the earth and the diversity of nature” (4).
The Relational Poet constructs by way of a collection of gathered material, an “accumulation of sediments” that may contribute to an “apprehension of the world not as an unshaped bundle of materials waiting to be formed, but rather as a diverse and extensive patterning that is already formed and transforming, already imbued with a logic” (4).
how every finding, finding again, remembering the dead body, the scattered other, his parts, how she wept from town to town, how all those women, Isis, Psyche, Mary, holding the dead cock, what life after this one? what possible, what birth of tragedy, Erzulie, what mother of us all, weeping, inconsolable, that dear heart, these loves, gone, sons always some mother’s son. every last mother’s son of you. (A Reading 1-7 61)
Dahlen gathers and assembles; the work informs her own knowledge about reading, writing, and the world; the text is a process of apprehension. The materials of the text—fragments, quotations, pieces of history, thought—combine and construct a hybrid work that breaks away from conventional notions of poetry, journal writing, and autobiography, creating something else: a model for coming to know through the practice of writing.
A Reading is “a performance of exploration and discovery in which the writing functions as a reading of the author’s life, self, unconscious, relationship to language, and the cultural knowledge that informs and partakes in the construction of all these” (Simpson 83).
A Reading is multi-directional: who is reading whom and/or what remains in constant motion.
Within the Freudian-Lacanian framework, Dahlen must realize “the most powerful threat to the law of the father . . . is simply the knowledge that knowledge itself is constructed and perpetuated in the service of maintaining the authority of this law in the first place” (Simpson 88). This kind of knowledge can be dangerous: when one can see through the authority of the law, through the ideological construction of knowledge and social understanding, one becomes threatening to those structures.
Simpson: “the reading-writing subject-in-process in A Reading constantly asks what knowledge is, even as she seeks to know; this asking often reveals itself through contradiction” (88).
A Reading performs the act of questioning, breaks through language and narratives that reinforce social norms, queers those norms through active subversion and critique, and enacts other ways of using language (toward a model for reading and writing oneself into larger spaces of knowing).
Simpson: “Dahlen is not so much protesting gender hierarchies as she is celebrating the possibilities for getting outside of them by using the language differently” (92). Dismantling linguistic structures—allowing Kristeva’s semiotic to resonate—and making feminist politics transparent—through direct references and social commentary—Dahlen works textually and culturally to think political action from the ground up.
“trails, a certain path, a road” (A Reading 1-7 61).
V. Queerness and Boundaries
Lynn Keller reads Dahlen next to DuPlessis (her long poetic work, Drafts): these writers “have dealt with the problematics of an inheritance that positions man as writer and woman as written partly by seeking out a female tradition of writers who explored language innovations with a consciousness of the relation between gender and language” (241). Keller notes DuPlessis’s turning away, to pursue an “Otherhow” of feminist writing practice.
Also of note (Keller): similarities between Robert Duncan, DuPlessis, and Dahlen by way of Duncan’s feminist, queer poetics, and these three poets similarly invested in writing that is ahierarchal, polyphonic, nonlinear, non-teleological (247); the focus on Freudian thinking and analysis in Duncan’s own poetic process (248); the “acceptance of the artist’s alienation from hegemonic society . . . and his determination to use poetry as social critique” (249); and what he terms the “derivative” nature of the writing (250). This work is also “self-consciously gendered” and “is composed with the transgressive awareness that while a woman writes within the gender system, her position is also radically and inevitably ‘outside the law’” (252). Duncan incorporated his own sexual politics, creating poems read as queer in form and content.
(Although there is no inherent connection between the feminine/female and the experimental (252), the consciousness of language structure and writing method, and a politics of gender, combine to work through and inhabit the form-content complex that becomes the work itself. The work is “queer” in its refusal to subscribe to particular theories of gender or sexual identification, linguistically or socially, and in its subversive practices.)
“I would not have been a poet” (A Reading 1-7 66).
The “otherhow” space is a tool for widening or dismantling the dominant structure from within. Writing strategy, intertextual dialogue, and reflection instate spaces into the literary landscape, opening that to forms, styles, voices that rework traditions, prejudices, and binaries. Dahlen’s spaces are heterotopic (in Foucault’s terms), spaces that are simultaneously real and unreal, that open an otherwise linear space into a spatial network of connection, the whole reflecting the impossibility of a whole unless it is textured and contradictory. The heterotopic includes the actual and the potential, present and past.
The spatial logic in the experimental text relates to the interrogation of borders, the transcending of genre, and new practices of writing and thinking.
“The terms for defining innovative writing over the last three decades center on issues of formal exploration, that is, on the interrogation of forms of representation and on the opening and investigation of literary structures and genres” (Sloan 6).
The border between form and content is often erased, or shifted substantially. Sloan: “If there is a particular focus in these [experimental] writings on space as the ground for literary exposition and therefore necessarily on questions of boundary, position, and closure, that interest may express the radically changing status of contemporary women” (6-7).
A Reading 1-7 in fact begins by investigating the negotiation of boundaries:
before that and before that. everything in a line. where it was broken into, the house. not a body but still I could not see that it didn’t have a roof. then there was something to cry about. assumption of protection. whether I thought the sky the top of. whatever does. this I carry forward. the sky which was not a limit but apparently so. and that mistake which. colored it. what color? as if in another light. so shadows. (15)
…begins in the middle of a sentence that alludes to beginning (e.g., “in the beginning”), tradition (in literature) or history (we repeat history), and the concept of linearity. “everything in a line” but what kind of line? A line of poetry? A line in which things fall in order? Though there may be some order that these sentences follow, the paragraph is paratactic. The next sentence (fragment): the first part of which can be read as following the previous, “everything in a line. where it was broken into,” as well as with its own subject, “a house.” Read with the previous sentence the text comments on its own methodology of writing sentences, lines, and then breaking into them. “House” might be read metaphorically in terms of language, Dahlen’s project as a response to formalism in poetry.
References to “roof” and “sky” point toward this breaking out, or going beyond, limits of language and tradition. E.g. “the sky which was not a limit but apparently so” foreshadows the politics of the work, that is, appearances—or assumptions, like cultural myths and reinforced social “rules” and “roles”—can be deceiving. Even the sky is not the limit (does not limit) but colors and shades of “meaning” can be interpreted as having such limits.
(But this means that they can also be interpreted otherwise.)
The point is to “be in” the process, like in psychoanalysis, reading and writing continue on indefinitely: “the interminable reading. the infinite analysis” (A Reading 1-7 17).
“turning first to the chapter on mourning and melancholia and later to the chapter on the uncanny. this was about mirrors. in some sense she was my double. she died” (A Reading 1-7 19).
The mirror represents double-ness, the real and not real, the subject who is not autonomous. But who is “she”? Who is the subject, who the double, who dies? In Kristeva’s theory of abjection, following Lacan and Freud, the abject subject is part of, and rejected from, symbolic order. “She” might be a kind of universal “She,” an abject subject within the phallic, symbolic order.
Freud is interminable. In permutation. Dahlen references innumerable sources and writers, often leaving out specific details of the references. We can fill in the details or continue along for connection, resonance, follow the trail(s). A Reading is a response to narrative structure, linearity, plot, character, and its critique of narrative incorporates (other) narrative, poetic, and paratactic elements.
VI. Spatial Being and Counter-Narrativity
“following that she dropped from sight. follow the thought, it goes somewhere. in narrative we follow a trail, the clues laid out. that’s how it becomes the illusion of space. that we follow it. the ubiquitous Galápagos trail marker, the post painted black and white” (A Reading 1-7 21).
Narrative structure inherently includes clues not just for reading, but for reading with a sense of linear progression and “meaning,” the payoff for following from one thought to another, from beginning, through middle, to the end. She writes, “that’s how it becomes the illusion of space” instead of saying that narrative is itself an illusion, it is the process that becomes the “illusion of space.” Ironically (purposefully), the thoughts stand still, in the middle of the trail, at the trail marker. We only know the trail is a trail because of the markers lining it, and narratives possess “ubiquitous” clues to keep one reading forward. Though in this alternative narrative practice, the clues don’t necessarily aid in progressive, linear development.
“the missing part, the dangling epithet, the curse, the ram. those parts for the whole stitched together, the face of the monster of Frankenstein. the epitaph, whatever appeared on the gravestone” (A Reading 8-10 9).
Non/narrative practices that resist traditional syntactic, sequential, and spatial forms can be said to enact kinds of real-world complexity for women as cultural and textual subjects. Let’s turn to Susan Stanford’s Friedman’s concept of the “geographics of identity,” through which we can examine “identity as the product of complex intersections and locations” (20). Consideration of “discourses of identity within this new geography of positionality” shows a kind of subjective spatial relationality that takes into account “multiple oppression; multiple subject positions; contradictory subject positions; relationality; situationality; and hybridity” (20). Subject identity then can be seen as a “weblike matrix” (28), demonstrating the inadequacy of binary logic. In relation to Kristeva’s subject, or identity, in-process we can thus develop a more comprehensive understanding of the subject in the world in flux, inhabiting a geographic of perspective and spatiality. The non/narrative text, in Dahlen’s terms, thus enacts the interrogation of narrative, challenges linearly constructed and delimiting perspectives of identity and subjectivity, and aims to present alternatives for subjects in context and in-process.
A Reading weaves in and out of forms of narrative, drawing attention to the difficulties, recognizing nonetheless our interest in “story,” and giving us an exploratory reading/writing in which desire for “meaning” is really about knowledge. The writing (via reading) opens space for reflection and engagement.
It is a relational strategy of gathering and resonance.
(All this language is floating. The men make statements. They use the forms of the verb ‘to be’ with confidence. What I write is provisional. It depends. It is subject to constant modification. It depends.) (A Reading 1-7 76)
The writing, like the subject, is “subject to constant modification.” The writing, like analysis, is interminable. This is not Cartesian male subjectivity, in which, to state “I am” is in fact, “to be.” We are not all positioned in this same linguistic or social context, or there is none that is “neutral.”
(I had a professor once who talked about Descartes’ ability to “I think therefore I am” because he had someone (wife, mother?) providing him meals, doing his laundry, etc. His privileged context of sitting around with his thoughts is certainly not a way that most folks exist. In fact, this focus on the individual subject position, “I” outside of a worldly context, is contrary to an identity or subject position that is intimately connected to a matrix of worldly factors. There is no “Individual” who is not also part of a complex web of social components. Subjectivity in this sense arises out of dynamic (active, fluctuating, energetic) relations.)
In fact, “I am,” like the text, “provisional,” and dependent upon any multitude of factors or facets at any given time. Subjectivity is implemented in and through language, the language then floating toward discovery (questioning), away from definition (making statements).
Not knowing, in fact, is a means of discovering knowledge. Switching into a first person narrator addressing a second person “other,” Dahlen writes:
the reading of the writing goes on, this is for you because you are not here. you are always not here. you are never here. I make you up, I wonder how you look. and now it is so much easier to write than to speak. an other is so much an hallucination it’s scary. I do not know what I speak to. (A Reading 1-7 78)
Two pages later this passage is repeated exactly. Repetition occurs: words, phrases, ideas resonate on occasion throughout A Reading. This passage is one of only a couple of whole passages rewritten word for word. The repetition conveys a sense of anxiety. “I do not know what I speak to.” Is Dahlen anxious about the project? This statement occurs in the middle of the first book, and the series continues on through three more books (so far) after this. Of course when she was in the middle of the first book, she might have wondered (like I am wondering now) why am I doing this? Who is going to read this? Who are you, reader and can you trust me if I am not even sure what I am doing here?
But this *not knowing* is of central importance to the project itself. It is what allows the text to remain open. The above passage also sets the relationship between self and other, writer and reader, reader and (previous) texts, into dynamic interaction. Why is the other of this address “always not here. you are never here.” Why is the syntactically awkward “you are always not here” repeated in more simple terms, “you are never here”? The words “always” and “never” resonate in their antithesis, even if the two sentences say the same thing. There is no one (kind of) audience (the audience is always an “other”) but an endless possibility of audiences. The narrator requires “an other” in order to have a textual subjectivity (one cannot have subjectivity alone) in order to write at all, a totally not-Cartesian self-involvement but instead an interactive experience of knowledge sharing.
“the reading of the writing goes on” and in a circular fashion: Dahlen reads previous writing, takes notes, writes her own text, reads more writing, engages with her audience by letting them in to linger, and the text continues.
“Music, a phrase of notes holding one in a spell. seeing how we are held enchanted in a garden. a play of light, a deliberate invention. this garden in which she ‘longed to walk among those cool fountains.’ … I am not unaware of the ways in which I resemble her” (A Reading 8-10 9).
At this moment reader, you might be asking, “what about the question of power?” In fact, this is a good place to go, continuing to think about the spatial geography of this text. Is the lack of power, of “othered” subjects used as a positive motivation in a text that circulates instead of progresses forward, toward some goal or end? The anti-symbolic, non/narrative text may be “a power which is no power. a display of wounds. all that should have remained hidden, obscene, a great need, a lack” (A Reading 1-7 88).
If we go back to Hayden White: the non/narrative historical document is lacking when it is not turned into, or accompanied by, a narrative account. Historical narratives often leave out the original document and instead narrate it for readers, so that the original remains “hidden.” Many of Dahlen’s primary sources are hidden, in the sense that she doesn’t cite them. Sometimes she uses quotes, sometimes not. The “display of wounds. all that should have remained hidden” is in fact on display, not hidden at all. The sources are not cited, but the material lies transparently on the surface of the text, in all of its fragmentation and mess.
Narrative cohesion levels gaps and holes that make a story messy. Dahlen’s kind of messy gives us something else: like White’s examples of annals or chronicles (made of fragments, details) A Reading allows readers to assemble the material pieces through interaction and interpretation.
“The world was a promise, he said, the mustard seed” (A Reading 8-10 12).
Before language is constructed into symbolic language (Kristeva) the semiotic space enacts emotion, music, and pure potential for exploration. This in contradistinction to symbolic narrative structure (in which movement and understanding are ordered/organized with little tolerance for the incoherent).
Make the wounds (*lack*) whole. Offer an example of possible (alternative) ways of knowing. A Reading is going beyond reacting (to “masculine” writing with “feminine” writing).
Open the continuum of possibility. Allow greater inclusion of linguistic and narrative practice. “Disavow” difference (in its negative sense; instead make difference affirmative, constructive, knowledgeable), complicate our reading practice, complicate gender.
if sexual difference is disavowed she
if sexual difference is disavowed she
will be more complicated (A Reading 1-7 88)
If there is no sexual difference, then what is there?
It may be impossible to imagine such a (gender-less) scenario, but it is the possibility of imagining that is essential. Without sexual difference, how does one exist as a knowing “she”?
(A Reading, in so many and various ways, leads us through questions and possibilities for thinking in different terms, challenging our inherited, normative beliefs.)
A Reading imagines and constructs alternative forms of expression, using and writing over previous texts and ideas. Over the course of the series the text alternates between long prose lines and shorter, broken poetic lines, drawing attention to the blank space of the page. Product is process.
A poetics of the project at large:
a white space intervening.
a white space intervening, white, white. that white light, static. questioning the first draft. this is not a literary work, I told him, this is not fussy. this is not my mother dusting the daisies. this is not domestic duty. this is not the idea. a preconception. this is it. the baby. the corpse. you can take that body and cut it up forever. this is a metaphor. a something. a meaning carried over. from one thing to the next. these are my leg hairs. the short hair that grows at the edge of my lips. lips, teeth. this is my little bow mouth. here it is. you will never know what I mean. when I say you I mean me. erasing all the I’s and using instead the third person. it alternates. an alternation, or alteration of generations. it changes. in other words. i.e., it changes. that is to say, it changes. it alters. it becomes something else, though its original form is still visible. one can trace that. he put a mark over it, a cross, but the word could still be read beneath it. ‘the effacement of the trace.’ (A Reading 1-7 90)
IX. Derrida and “the trace”
“[T]he effacement of the trace” comes from Derrida in Of Grammatology: “it is the myth of the effacement of the trace, that is to say of an originary difference that is neither absence nor presence, neither negative nor positive.”
Both the trace and its effacement are based in originary myths.
Derrida: “Writing is one of the representatives of the trace in general, it is not the trace itself. The trace itself does not exist . . . . In a way, this displacement leaves the place of the decision hidden, but it also indicates it unmistakably” (167).
(In Introduction to Phenomenology, Dermot Moran explains, “From Levinas in particular, Derrida takes the notion of ‘trace’ as a mark of something absent that has never actually been present … As Derrida comments … a ‘trace’ is not an effect since it does not actually have a cause. All signs are in effect traces. Indeed, the act of signifying itself can only be understood as a trace. Derrida talks of language as a ‘play of traces’ … In Derrrida’s use of the term trace, it applies as much to the future as to the past, and indeed constitutes the present by its very relation to what is absent” (469).)
The difference, or spaces between displacements, allow for movement between past and present, from earlier texts to the contemporary.
The trace is both real and mythical. Ideas and practices both repeat and change until there is no longer an actual origin, even if “its original form is still visible.” Like hereditary characteristics in families, new writing both resembles, and is unique from, its precursors.
Absence and lack are necessary to presence, and to signification. A Reading builds on language play, writing, and writing over, to show change and similarity. If *the trace* does not exist, has no original cause, it nonetheless lends toward the idea of change and alteration picked up and repeated here (above). Looking back to the beginning of the passage, we read again: “questioning the first draft,” the mention of “metaphor” and “meaning carried over,” and a body that might be cut up into eternity, like the text in which only effacement is continuous. What has come before is still always visible, even if it cannot go back to a single origin.
“what that definition included, not lucidity, not clarity in the ordinary, not the great light. a light but not that. a darkness, which is” (A Reading 8-10 27).
The play of language results in yet another reference to movement between first, second, and third-person pronouns and the subjective layering that happens here: “when I say you I mean me. erasing all the I’s and using instead the third person.”
The effacement of the trace, the effacement of the text, the erasing of “I” and use of “she” or “he,” results in an insight into the processes of reading, writing, erasing, adding to. Writing/effacing a text, an identity, is continuous, alternating, changing yet retaining something of what came before.
The palimpsest as metaphor: the messy text as an example of transparency that more structurally coherent, linear narrative writing is not, another text (narrative) neatly covering over that which might lead to questions.
After Derrida, as if in conclusion, Dahlen writes: “what thought there was we do not know. we will never discover it. it is not there. it is gone, or it never existed” (90).
The point is not in discovering the “origin” but *meaning* is found in the process itself: of using/reusing, of reading/writing/rewriting to discover new thoughts, to see old thoughts in a new way.
A Reading, based on, and in conversation with, previous texts and ideas is “beginning anew. that we come to it” (A Reading 1-7 107). Old and new, through this hybrid text, that is poetry and prose, narrative and non/narrative, the productive space of process is opened for “conclusions” that cannot be predicted.
“on the third day I embarked for the promised land. these are narrative sentences and not statements. they are suspended. fictions. holding the breath, breathlessly, to watch it, how it will progress, what will be the outcome, the end” (A Reading 1-7 112).
We readers watch it progress, from one suspended, fictional narrative sentence to another. Dahlen draws a distinction between fictional narrative sentences, and (factual) statements, as if to emphasize the fabricated nature of narrative that we might not otherwise see through. Narrative catches our attention (and keeps us distracted); we hold our breaths, watching to see what will happen.
X. A Reading 8-10 and Historical Agency
A Reading 8-10 include more feminist commentary, references to Marx and Freud, and remarks on larger social/historical/economic structures.
“this leaf, the local. splotched or daubed with silvery white a descending order of greens, and red. I read the seeds, colors and shapes,” invokes the local, specific leaf within a hierarchy of greens. Further, “there is a project called nature beyond the pale. a leaf, a stream, infringed upon, not safely in another dimension” (A Reading 8-10 7).
We are situated in a space between nature and culture, in which the particular details of a leaf can offer insight into the social workings of the larger world.
“an undisturbed genius. the genius of the room is masculine. but the mother is the muse. she who charms us by her silence, and her beauty, or fascinates and repels by her ugliness, her oldness. and I in the guise of the knight. in the name of the son I rebel” (A Reading 8-10 7).
Throughout A Reading, the “I” is always capitalized, when everything else is not, giving power to the female speaking subject. The “I” is, above, caught in a kind of gender confusion, if we read the speaker as female. Though the female can be “in the guise of the knight” and can rebel “in the name of the son” this pushes the gendered binary not toward androgyny but toward something more like a potential for queer identification that may or not be culturally acceptable.
(For Foucault “The binary regulation of sexuality suppresses the subversive multiplicity of a sexuality that disrupts heterosexual, reproductive, and medicojuridical hegemonies” (Butler, Gender Trouble 26).)
“she played the illusion of the bridal veil swathed in hipboots. she herself unwinding. these identities. a wounded father, the lack, the absence” (A Reading 8-10 7).
The genius of the masculine author is foregrounded and challenged by a female writer/speaker utilizing an alternative to masculine “genius” literary writing, even while this tradition is invoked instead of ignored.
A Reading deconstructs, reads and writes through multiple registers including literary history using language that is narrative, fragmented, and paratactic. Ideas repeat and shift, creating a constellation of investigations into social, linguistic, and gender systems (think Stein here). Dahlen’s uses of language play function aesthetically in terms of sound and musicality, and function as critique-content. A politics is enacted within the lyric play of language, and as a challenge to traditional forms of lyric poetry that portrayed women as the written, or muse, without agency.
it is the law alone that finds her unnatural
‘this is not nature’ I said to him
it is not nature you cannot speak of it
the law of the father determines her fate (A Reading 8-10 13)
Literature, psychoanalysis, lyric poetry are not natural phenomena but are constructed according to “the law of the father,” linguistic, social, and historical systems rooted in the patriarchal.
The play between personal pronouns points to a shifting subjectivity, in which the narrator negotiates her position between self and world. Examples of specific historical female figures negotiating their positions in the world are woven into the poetic prose of the text, as in the passages below:
the moon winked, she rides for us, her red-rimmed eyes. blind truth, it is ‘mediated, female, and probably mad.’ the matter of Britain, the matter of Troy. a city lost. a woman on the ramparts. she, she was its downfall, by her treachery, her betrayal. she, Guinevere, or Helen, outside the law, that dangerous radical, the beautiful woman. (16)
recognize it. she was up all night writing. she thought he was skitterish, he envied her, was finally jealous of her power. I was thinking of George Sand. (20)
. . . and Macbeth is tempted to enter a world of feminine evil. he is taken in by witches, by powerful magic, by women who do not bear children in the ordinary way, but bear prophecy, madness, death. they will act outside the patriarchal order. violating that order is tragedy (84)
. . . Isis is looking for the fragments as if she were whole. as if she were. come on. there’s a lovely picture. do not you believe it. Isis is blasted. look it over. there isn’t any mother who is whole, who can be counted on to pick up the pieces. we all refuse it. no one will do it. it’s too much like cleaning house, like laundry, like shit. too much like bloody entrails. (85)
Dahlen also recovers and re-contextualizes female tropes such as the feminine evil in Macbeth, or Isis picking up the pieces, gathering fragments “as if she were whole,” as is the role of the woman/mother, because no one else will do it.
In analysis, the repressed material never wholly goes away, but is used in the transformation from symptomatic or traumatic repetition to more full participation in everyday life.
Referencing Simone de Beauvoir: “she has mistaken it, mistaken the call. the brotherhood will not include her. it is madness to think so. and for him also madness, or pious sentimentality. she has a different story” (A Reading 8-10 60).
Having one’s story told. The historical challenge. Revising or rewriting (repressive) literary history is like a game of fort/da (Freud), continually disappearing and returning, progressing and receding, a kind of repetition without origin.
A Reading 8-10 maneuvers through references from Freud’s “The Wolf Man” and “Dora,” to the story of his own grandchild playing a game of his own invention: “fort/da, the child with the cotton reel, a spinning wheel, the counter transference” (41). All of the above examples, in a way, can be summed up in the fort/da story. The reference is to the recursive action in the game the child plays with the cotton reel when his mother is gone, throwing it away from him and then pulling it in, and repeating “fort/da” accordingly (French for “gone” and “there”).
Psychoanalysis enacts a continual going into and returning. Analyst and patient recover repressed material, and give that meaning through narration. This is also an analogy for literary history in which prior material is reused and revised, through which ultimately there may be no original trace.
Erasure of *the trace* in this kind of returning to and revising has consequences for women writers excluded from male literary canons, for example, who create or participate in an alternate heritage. Or female characters who participate in the repetition of repression because of their status as women. Over time, some of these women as artists or thinkers may be granted greater status: e.g. posthumous publishing and recovery; or figures like Guinevere, Helen, or Emma who act outside the (patriarchal) law who, even though they will suffer the consequences, will be remembered through history.
Now let’s connect the Freudian/Lacanian Oedipal social/sexual system to the linguistic and the economic, by way of Marx, through A Reading 8-10. Language, in the Marxist model as read through Dahlen, is a fundamental element of the economic system, which cannot be separated from the social.
reading, I am prepared for this country, with vocabulary, descriptions of foxes, their pictures, I may never see a fox. whatever else I know through books, it is nothing like what is. is, is there. there is necessarily no link, no chain fence, stopped short. a word suffices, it carries no weight, it is a part of the base of the superstructure. (121)
what does it profit anybody, you lost. you can’t do more than lose. it was settled that way. a basis. base. the foundation. the base and the superstructure. (124)
The discrepancy is between what the narrator has read in books and what happens in reality, “it is nothing like what is.” When writing is part of the base and the superstructure—that conforms to mainstream norms, cultural narratives, and utilizes conventional narrative strategies—the “word” carries no weight, it is simply a part of the system.
Drawing attention to the problematic nature of linguistic, social, and economic repression of “other” elements is a politics that pushes against the restraints to recover language, and strategies that work against the repetition of social, sexual, economic, and linguistic norms.
years. the automatic text. we will not fall out of this world. how. I thought how can you, are you. I was more than invisible. whatever language is, it is invented. it is a closed system.
it is all the words you didn’t use. what was not there. they are always looking at it, what is not there. what is absent. presence is one thing. but only one thing. (137)
The work of revision and reconstruction has to be from within “this world” and through the very language that had been used historically to control women’s voices. Language is invented and can be manipulated, what has been left out can be (re)included and given material space.
The critique of narrative as ideology, and the general adherence to social norms that confine and define, plays out in scenes throughout A Reading 11-17. Disparate, fragmented, textured writing dismantles the rigid structures of social and sexual thinking, and offers new ways of using language to represent ideas and experience.
there will never be time to write all the sentences one may have been capable of writing, even about one subject. take a subject, anything, it is so simple, but the sentence is notched, can view the relationship from any one of a number (the number is infinite) of stances. where would you like to stand to view this one. any sentence is merely an example. it shows what might be done. a sentence is a model, in no way permanent, of thought. (A Reading 11-17 62)
A sense of infinity and impermanence keeps writing and knowing in flux.
There can be no closure because any sentence cannot permanently contain thoughts or ideas.
The text is always open to change and fluctuation.
“thinking is the same as writing. writing thoughts in which you move. follow one thing to the next. there, I said to her, write that, that’s your first line. then what do you think of. then what do you imagine. do you begin there, not hearing the others?” (A Reading 11-17 69)
Through writing one comes to know, or make sense of one’s thoughts. Like thinking, writing can be circular, can seem to have arbitrary beginnings and endings.
the listener bends forward there is someone telling the story
in a country light. machine willing to move backwards and
forward in time. way to. toss a note on that rock through
the window. telling she was the original as all good sisters
mothers. what have I to do with thee. (A Reading 11-17 81)
A Reading, as a series, is also a project of social change through literary action (as experimentation). There is no way to predict the outcome, but in the process the writing continually builds upon what has come before, leaving us to consider the nature of choice itself, to question and reflect upon how we know what we know and from where that information arises. A Reading doesn’t simply repeat the same continuous social critique, but moves through ideas in a circular fashion so that some ideas resonate, while others accumulate, adding to a call for social action.
she wanted to write a bildungsroman, the turning point, the final cap on the chapter. it would have been her own story, no matter how disguised. she might have been accustomed to hearing about it but the men in the next house were pounding away. she wanted no part of it. they came down on her hard. they were the very epitome of the unregenerate. (A Reading 11-17 84)
XII. Perverse Desire
A Reading 18-20 returns more intently to the theme of desire, taking the concept of narrative desire in non/narrative directions. In addition to Brooks’ discussion of narrative desire above, Teresa de Lauretis’s notion of perverse desire continues to offer alternatives to normative conceptions of desire and representation.
“our visionaries traipsed to the barn concocting a glorious revolution. I scared myself sitting down. one doesn’t necessarily wish to go in the predicated direction. did I owe him that?” (A Reading 18-20 7).
Kristeva queers the symbolic, heteronormative language system, and de Lauretis queers Freud, through his own concept of perversion. De Lauretis reworks Freud’s idea of perversion into a conception of lesbian desire that can be considered outside of the oedipal complex and Freud’s theory of castration.
The disavowal of castration (de Lauretis) moves the subject out of the Oedipal model (penis envy/castration) and into the female body (outside of the relationship to the penis): one’s own (subjectivity), or another’s (fetish).
the mediating term, the signifier of desire, is not the paternal phallus but the fetish. . . . fetishistic or perverse desire goes beyond the Oedipus complex and in its own way resolves it. For the instinctual investment represented by the fetish is an investment not in the mother (negative Oedipus) or in the father/father’s child (positive Oedipus), but in the female body itself, ultimately in the subject’s own body-image and body-ego whose loss or lack it serves to disavow. (de Lauretis, Practice 289)
The fetish, or the object of desire, as a same-sex object, makes the desire perverse, but de Lauretis’ notion of disavowing castration (lack), and instead emphasizing the female body, reforms the idea of perverse desire into a constructive model.
Focusing on lesbian desire in relation to the Freudian, Oedipal, heterosexual structure of “normal” sexuality, de Lauretis also suggests that perverse desire might be considered in terms of the non-normatively heterosexual.
“[i]f perversion is understood with Freud as a deviation of the sexual drive from the path leading to the reproductive object . . . then a theory of perversion would serve to articulate a model of perverse desire where perverse means not pathological but rather non-heterosexual, or non-normatively heterosexual” (de Lauretis, Figures 86).
Perversion, simply put, is deviation from the norm.
If (hetero)sexuality, as a model for social structure, includes reproduction as its goal (sexual and social), then any deviation from that (non- sexual reproduction; refusal to reproduce oppressive social ideologies) is considered “perverse.”
If “perversion” is seen as a turning away from “a socially constituted norm” and not a refusal of nature, then this norm, or “normal sexuality,” can be seen as “a requirement of social reproduction, both reproduction of the species and reproduction of the social system” (de Lauretis, Figures 113).
As a socially constituted norm, sexuality is repeated through cultural myths and narratives, ideology, and (patriarchal, heterosexual) power structures.
“I closed my eyes against it, loose abstractions, works on paper. squiggles of a dying order, footmarks of deer, their droppings. the marked and the unmarked, the books says an ethereal fluting, a prayer, wispy, breathy. restrained. a gurgling” (A Reading 11-17 97).
XIII. The Social (vs. “natural”)
A Reading 18-20 asks: what happens outside proscribed norms instilled within the socialization process that begins in the oedipal stages of development? Is it possible to think outside of Marx’s model of the base and superstructure? Can perverse desire (my reading of A Reading via de Lauretis via Freud, though Dahlen doesn’t use this terminology exactly) disrupt social institutions (economic, political, linguistic)?
Using de Lauretis, from Freud and into Dahlen, we find a kind of perverse desire in the formal strategies of the text that refuse to participate in a satisfaction of narrative desire.
“history repeats, the second time around as farce. the third time’s the charm. marigolds banked on a slope as part of a scientific plan for erosion control. I don’t understand you. read up on it: here’s a booklist” (A Reading 18-20 9).
A Reading perverts narrative by focusing on its own material textuality and its disavowal of the (hetero)normative oedipal model which suppresses female subjectivity and the possibility of alternative object choice.
The feminist text breaks away from phallic power structures to focus on its own development and reach out to other, non-(hetero)-normative subjects, a kind of textual desire offering a non/narrative alternative to the dominance of narrative norms.
The desire for meaning, to produce meaning, fills me with dread and anxiety. We do not want to hear of another’s anxiety; there is nothing we can do with it, nor about it. Anxiety, Freud observes, “corresponds to a libido which has been deflected from its object and has found no employment.” An unappeased ghost, incessantly circling. The parodic and diminished double of all that was holy. (A Reading 18-20 13)
XIV. Desire, Religion
Following references to Marx via the social and economic contemporary as contextualized by the base-superstructure, we can’t help but read “religion” in this last book in terms of its normalizing, ideological function (think Althusser via Marx, or “interpolation” as a process of the control of subjects via ideology. Though because subjects are *always already* contextualized by this ideological control, social function or following social norms can be seen as free will). Religious narratives, like other sorts of cultural narratives, keep norms intact; they function to give followers faith and doctrine instead of gaps and questions. Religious narratives are easily digestible and consumed without effort.
what would it make up
though I have not charity
I’d be as tinkling brass or
who are the poor in spirit
who walk around with the kingdom of heaven
in their heads
who’d be there counting out peoples
kindred in the roofs of their mouths
here is the church
and here is the steeple
mimicking past lives
the ghost of a chance
the productions of time congealing
the trees swaying in the wind
as they do in silent films
at 16 frames per second (A Reading 18-20 21)
“[h]ere is the church / and here is the steeple” refers to the children’s rhyme in which one opens her interlocked hands to show fingers that represent opening the doors to “see all the people,” in the church, a narrative construction not unlike a silent film moving slowly enough for the images to linger on the brain.
Here in a sense is a pointing to the gaps, the way stories like children’s games, simplify “faith” so one need not question. There is a discrepancy, in fact, between actually having charity in the world (action) and walking around “with the kingdom of heaven” in one’s head (non-action).
A Reading occasionally also dwells in the personal memory realm (i.e. Hejinian’s My Life), particularly as the idea of “memory” relates to “truth.” Writing memory in non-linear ways highlights the difficulty of articulating experience as truth and how these are (traditionally, un-problematically) constructed in narrative form.
sometimes the memory of something, place or room, returns so vividly, unexpectedly, as if I were hallucinating the interior of my father’s car, say, in 1946, or when did he sell the old Plymouth, the green one, ‘going to see a man about a horse,’ earlier, making the trade for it, were we really to have a horse? and where would we keep him and shall we have a buggy too (A Reading 18-20 40)
Recurring, also, is the concern with the repression of women’s stories, and writing in the service of normalizing masculine literary tradition.
autobiography, memory and mechanisms of concealment
that fantasy or wish to sit up all night with her exhausting
one another with talk conceals
or you know what
lavish passion in the absence of a mother
impressing conscripting language into the service
of repression (A Reading 18-20 40)
Syntax makes a literal meaning uncertain. Still, the repetition of the word “conceal” as well as the words “fantasy,” “conscripting,” and “repression” set a tone that critiques the use of language in the construction of our life stories. Autobiography and memory are listed as on par with “mechanisms of concealment,” as if the telling or writing of a life has more to do with concealing than with revealing. The “absence of a mother” invokes Kristeva’s theory of abjection, and a reconsideration of the mother figure suppressed in Freud’s oedipal narrative.
Language is drafted into the service of maintaining the gendered status quo. Language is used in the construction of cultural narratives that reinforce (ideological) social, sexual, economic, linguistic, and religious, norms.
verisimilitude is after all a problem in fiction. it demonstrates our boundless need for belief in the coherence of systems. we never notice it unless it fails. then we write contemptuous letters to the author citing the anachronisms. surely the old man was capable of distinguishing truth from poetry else what’s a conscience for? (A Reading 18-20 64)
Fiction is a fiction then, traditionally a tool used in the service of ideology to perpetuate a need to believe in coherence. We notice its failings, correct anachronisms, reaffirm our beliefs as if narrative coherence will make everything outside of narrative also cohere, saving us from perversion. We participate in the perpetuation of social norms that aren’t norms into which everyone fits. The norms are narrower than the perverse experiences and desires of subjects seeking to narratively articulate themselves.
Dahlen makes the belief in “the coherence of systems” a more complicated endeavor.
This kind of interrogation may be dangerous because as one (the feminist writer, the geographic subject, the queer perspective) moves away from heteronormative structures and tradition, and into an “otherhow” space, s/he can’t know precisely what is left behind.
And, if s/he is wrong, or if s/he is doomed to “fail” the fear is always that: “she has mistaken it, mistaken the call. the brotherhood will not include her. it is madness to think so. and for him also madness, or pious sentimentality. she has a different story.” But s/he is already outside of the norms, already non/narratively perverse, traditional narrative cannot account for the gaps, fragments, excess, parataxis.
The question is whether or not this story can be told. The question is how to construct it. The answer is that there’s not really another choice. In fact, this *different* story, the affirmation of the possibility of alternative representations of (female, queer, other) subjectivities, is already an articulation, a practice of relation in writing for expanded possibilities in the world.
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